January 16, 2022

The Virginia Class

Possibly the most successful American naval procurement program of the post-Cold War era has been the Virginia class nuclear attack submarine. With 19 currently in service and another 15 either under construction or on order, it will soon eclipse the Los Angeles class as the backbone of the American submarine force. Even more impressive, current shipbuilding plans suggest that another 17 will be ordered before the basic design is replaced by the SSN(X) in the mid-2030s.

Virginia cruises on the surface

The USN's nuclear submarine force was built to fight the Cold War, facing down the massive fleet of nuclear submarines the Russians built for that conflict. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the USN was in the process of procuring the Seawolf class, designed as part of the Reagan Administration's Maritime Strategy, with the intention of drawing off the Soviet SSNs by threatening the bastions where they kept their missile submarines. This required a very capable submarine, which in turn meant that they were also very large and extremely expensive. This would obviously be unaffordable in the post-Cold War budgetary environment, and the program was ultimately terminated at three boats as the USN searched for an affordable successor. Read more...

January 09, 2022

The Drone Revolution?

An idea that comes up reasonably often on the internet is the suggestion that swarms of cheap drones are about to revolutionize warfare, rendering current systems hopelessly obsolete. After all, new technologies have repeatedly upended civilian life. Why shouldn't they do the same for the military?

The future of warfare?

There is a lot to be said for this view. Weapons that can guide themselves to the target have the potential to dramatically change how wars are fought, cutting the number of weapons required to achieve a result, and reducing collateral damage. Some types of ships might become essentially obsolete, unable to justify their cost in the face of the new threat, while new systems will have to be developed to counter the threat. In fact, this stands to be the biggest revolution in warfare in decades. Read more...

January 07, 2022

Open Thread 95

It is now time for our regular open thread. Talk about whatever you want, so long as it isn't Culture War.

Now that 2021 is behind us, it's time for the year's William D. Brown Memorial Award, for the biggest naval screwup that didn't kill anyone. This year's winner is Iran, who took a cue from the USN and decided that the best way to win was to set one of their own ships on fire. They chose the replinishment ship Kharg back in June, which had been key to their plans to deploy globally. While this seems like it obviously would have been enough, they were committed enough to make a second effort in December, when they capsized a new frigate in drydock.

The USN was less dedicated, and its attempt to repeat its victory last year by running a submarine into an underwater mountain merely gave it runner-up status.

2017-2018 overhauls are Armor parts three and four, the Spotter's Guides to warships of the world wars and the modern era, Carrier Doom Part 1 and Reactivation. 2018-2019 overhauls are Great White Fleet Parts two and three, Commercial Aviation Part 4, Information, Communication and Naval Warfare Part 2, Auxiliaries Part 4 and my review of the Stafford Air and Space Museum. 2019-2020 overhauls are warships with Christmas lights, Anti-Radiation Missiles, New Years Logs and The Range of a Carrier Wing*. 2020-2021 overhauls are SYWTBABB Leftovers Part 2, Naval Bases from Space - Hawaii, NWAS - Cruise Missiles Part 2 and The Ticonderoga Class.

January 02, 2022

Coastal Defenses and the Battleship in the 19th Century

One thing I didn't bring up much in my discussions of the early battleships was their interaction with coastal defenses. This is largely because it is most prominent in John Beeler's Birth of the Battleship, which I hadn't read yet, and Friedman's British Battleships of the Victorian Era, which wasn't out yet when I wrote those. But as I've learned more about that, and coastal defenses in general, I think it plays an important part in the design history of the battleship in the period between 1860 and 1890.

The British bombard Sveaborg

Fundamentally, there are three ways to deal with an enemy battlefleet: defeat it on the open seas, blockade it into port, and destroy it in its base. During the age of sail, it was rare for the third option to be on the table, as coastal defenses were too strong for a fleet to have any real chance of defeating them.1 But this began to change in the 1850s. During the Crimean War, the British showed that the greater maneuverability of steam-powered vessels opened up new options for attacking coastal fortifications, while the American Civil War confirmed the ineffectiveness of masonry fortifications in the face of fire from rifled guns. In both wars, the ironclad raised the minimum standard required of coastal guns. All of these combined to make existing fortifications obsolete, which was essentially a new problem for coastal defenses. Previously, even decades-old guns in hasty or antique positions could provide quite effective coastal defense, particularly if paired with heated shot or shells. But facing down an ironclad would require expensive modern guns, which were only available in limited numbers, and which were rapidly rendered obsolete. Read more...

December 29, 2021

Naval Video Games

Coming off my review of Ultimate Admiral - Dreadnoughts, I thought it was worth taking a look at the wider world of naval video games. All of these are things I've played, although a few are more broadly strategic or naval-adjacent, as I chose to cast a wide net.

Rule the Waves 2

RTW2 shouldn't be unfamiliar to long-time readers here, given that we had a group game running for over a year. It's a game set in the period 1900-1950 where you pick a country, design and build ships, and then fight them. The high point of the game is the ship designer, as it's quite versatile and does a good job of capturing the flavor of the sorts of decisions real designers have to deal with, without overwhelming you with detail. The other aspects are less satisfactory, with the ship combat being merely OK and the shallowness of the strategic aspects being at times deeply frustrating. There's an upcoming DLC which promises to fix some of that, and I will report back as soon as it's out. Despite the problems, the whole loop is amazing, and I highly recommend it. I will say that other games by the same developer (except RTW1, which was RTW2 but without airplanes and running 1900-1920) seem to be focused on recreating historical battles, and I don't like their ship combat engine enough to recommend them. They've also made a positive change by ditching their homegrown DRM, if you need one more reason to buy the game. Read more...

December 26, 2021

Nuclear Weapons At Sea - British Polaris

Britain decided to acquire nuclear weapons almost as soon as their existence became public, rightly seeing that they would be necessary to be seen as anything approaching a great power. Initially, the only possible deployment mechanism was the manned bomber, and the British developed three, collectively known as the V-bombers, in the early 50s to deliver their weapons to targets in the Soviet Union.2 But by the early 60s, this force was seen as increasingly inadequate and vulnerable thanks to developments in missile technology.

Vickers Valiant, one of the V-bombers

The V-bombers faced two separate problems. First, surface-to-air missiles had apparently rendered the high-altitude bomber obsolete, and while a shift to low level could preserve the viability of the deterrent in the short run, the future was seen as belonging to ballistic missiles. The British were working on a land-based missile known as Blue Streak that would replace the V-bombers, but it shared the second problem with the earlier force. Britain was simply too close to the Soviet Union, which meant that it would have only a few minutes warning of any attack. Bombers on ground alert wouldn't have enough time to get safely away, and Blue Streak would have to be on a hair trigger, opening the very real possibility of starting World War Three by mistake and going against all doctrine around nuclear weapons. Britain's geography posed another problem, in that the relatively small size of the country meant that any Soviet attack would do massive collateral damage, particularly if it was targeted at the hardened silos planned for Blue Streak. As a result, the missile was cancelled in 1960. Read more...

December 24, 2021

Open Thread 94

Merry Christmas, everyone. Open thread rules are as per usual, talk about whatever you want that isn't culture war.

Also, a reminder that the USNI sale ends on the 31st. There's a lot of good stuff there, and you should check it out before the sale ends.

2017 overhauls are Huascar Parts one and two, The South American Dreadnought Race, Dreadnoughts of the Minor Powers and Armor Parts one and two. 2018 overhauls are The First South Dakota Class, Commercial Aviation Part 3, Electronic Warfare Parts one, two and three, and Spot 1. 2019 overhauls are Billy Mitchell parts two and three, Aircraft Weapons - Short Range Missiles and Riverine Warfare - Southeast Asia Part 2. 2020 overhauls are Watches, Alsadius' review of Portsmouth, SYWTBABB Leftovers Part 1 and NWAS Cruise Missiles Part 1.

December 19, 2021

The Two-Power Standard Today

There's a criticism of the USN's strength that I've heard several times. It's based around the idea that in 1900, Britain could control the seas with a navy twice the size of the next two largest fleets combined.3 Today, it's hard to dispute that the USN is larger than that, and this obviously leads to the question of why we need such a big fleet. Is it extravagance and empire-building by the Navy? Is it because we're using our ships inefficiently? Could we cut back substantially without compromising the vital command of the sea?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is no, and the entire theory is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both the roots of the two-power standard and the changes in the roles and capabilities of seapower throughout the 20th century. Read more...

December 12, 2021


In the aftermath of the sinking of Eilat, western navies struggled to find solutions to the new threat of anti-ship missiles. Much of the effort focused on electronic countermeasures and missiles, such as the Basic Point Defense Missile System adapted from the air-to-air AIM-7 Sparrow and later known as the RIM-7 Sea Sparrow. But the early versions of Sea Sparrow in particular were rather crude, and the Navy also issued a contract for a last-ditch gun-based point-defense weapon. The result was the ubiquitous Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS), universally known as "Sea Wizz".

A Phalanx aboard Missouri fires during RIMPAC 90

Because the system was needed in service urgently, the gun selected was the existing M61 Vulcan gatling gun,4 a 20mm weapon with six rotating barrels driven by an external motor. Developed for the Air Force starting in the late 40s, it demonstrated an excellent combination of low weight, high rate of fire, reliability and lethality. By the late 60s, it was America's standard fighter gun, and it remains in service on the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and F-22 to this day. But the real magic of Phalanx was in the control system. Two radar antennas are fitted inside the dome above the gun, operating in the Ku band. One searches the area around the weapon for threats, while the other tracks potential targets more precisely before firing. This antenna also tracks the outbound bullets, and the control system calculates their closest approach to the target, then adjusts its aim to bring that distance to zero. This technique, known as closed-loop spotting, cuts the time required to bring the weapon on target dramatically and is estimated to increase lethality by an order of magnitude. Read more...

December 10, 2021

Open Thread 93

It's time once again for our regular open thread. Talk about whatever you want, so long as it isn't culture war.

The November Alexander Award on DSL went to Vitor, for a post on container logistics. Highly recommended for its perspective on the current supply-chain issues.

2017 overhauls are Iowa parts seven and eight, Mine Warfare Part 2, Ironclads and the deaths of HMS Victoria and Force Z. 2018 overhauls are G3 and Nelson, Commercial Aviation Part 2, Japanese Battleships in WWII, A Brief History of the Aircraft Carrier and Falklands Part 9. 2019 overhauls are Harpoon, Riverine Warfare - Southeast Asia Part 1, Information, Communication and Naval Warfare Part 4 and my review of the National Atomic Museum. 2020 overhauls are CSA Raiding Part 3, Merchant Ships - Research Vessels, Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Effects and the review of HMS Belfast from Alsadius.