March 21, 2021

Southern Commerce Raiding Part 4 - Ironclads

Last time, we discussed Semmes’ escapades in the Sumter, which was a domestically manufactured privateer. The South had little capacity to manufacture modern ships, but the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, was a forward-thinking individual. On May 9th, 1861, Mallory dispatched James Bulloch to England, with instructions to purchase or have constructed six commerce raiders.


James Bulloch

Mallory had a good idea of what he wanted in these vessels: smaller, lightly-armed ships, “fast under both steam and canvas,” with the ability to operate for extended periods of time and to conduct operations without entering Confederate territory, if necessary. The Confederate Congress secretly approved this expedition (setting aside one million dollars for this end), along with approving the overseas construction of “one or two war steamers of the most modern and improved description, with a powerful armament and fully equipped for service.” Pursuant to that end, Mallory quickly sent Lieutenant James North to Europe to join Bulloch and procure ironclad vessels, suggesting six-gun frigates “that can receive without material injury the fire of the heaviest frigates…and whose guns, though few in number, with shell or hot shot, will enable them to destroy the wooden navy of our enemy.” Read more...

March 19, 2021

Open Thread 74

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

One thing I would like to talk about is Proceedings, the Naval Institute's flagship publication. It doesn't work quite like it appears to, which results in a lot of confusion.

The United States Naval Institute was founded in 1873 as a location for independent debate and discussion of the future of the sea services - Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, and that remains its core mission to this day, with Proceedings as the main mechanism. As a result, most articles tend to be a discussion of where the Navy is and where the author thinks it should go. (There's also some other stuff of interest to the readership, like book reviews and short naval history stuff.) The majority are fairly boring inside baseball, calling for better mine-warfare capabilities or improved barracks or a greater focus on Russia. Yes, some of these are important, but if they are, the same theme is almost certainly being pushed by other outlets which are more accessible to the layperson. (This is why I personally don't usually read it.) But Proceedings also occasionally publishes weird stuff, like the article on privateering. This is entirely in keeping with its mission, and the main problem is that these weird articles tend to get picked up by the wider media, who assume that they are far more legitimate than they actually are because they're published in Proceedings.

This effect is so strong that when I see a reference to Proceedings from someone who isn't a specialist, I immediately assume that it's going to be one of the weird and wrong articles that will pop up. I'm very rarely mistaken, and I would urge everyone to remember that Proceedings isn't peer-reviewed if they encounter links to it in the wild, and that they're likely to be wrong.

None of this is meant to bash the USNI. They're doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing by publishing this stuff, and they do a tremendous amount of good. If not for their publishing arm, naval history in the English-speaking world would be in a much worse state. That, more than anything, is why I'm proud to be a member. (The discount on books doesn't hurt, either.)

Also worth a read is Blackshoe's discussion of Rickover's effect on the USN's organizational culture.

2018 overhauls are the Bombardment of Alexandria, Military Procurement - Pricing, Amphibious Warfare Part 5, A Day on the America parts one and two and Thoughts on Tour Guiding. 2019 overhauls are German Guided Bombs Part 3, Commercial Aviation Part 9, Falklands Part 12, Weather at Sea, my review of Dayton and the South Dakota class. 2020 overhauls are Auxiliaries Part 0, Barb's raid on the train and Revolt of the Admirals Parts one and two.

March 17, 2021

Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Polaris Part 3

In the mid-50s, the US Navy decided to enter the ballistic missile game. Initially, they were to cooperate with the Army on the Jupiter missile, but this was quickly abandoned in favor of a new missile, known as Polaris. The Special Projects Office, led by Admiral William Raborn, took Polaris from paper studies to deployment in only four years, with the submarine USS George Washington taking the first missiles to sea in November 1960.


Polaris A1 on the pad during a test

Lockheed was responsible for the Polaris A1 missiles that George Washington carried. Each was 28.5' long and weighed about 29,000 lb, with two solid-propellant stages to propel the warhead to the target. These were the beneficiaries of a great deal of work on solid rocket propellant, which drew on the expertise of the American plastics industry1 to provide binders for the ammonium perchlorate and aluminum that provided most of the energy. The A1 was in many ways a prototype rushed into operational service, and insiders expected that reliability wouldn't be particularly good if they had to actually fire them, particularly because of electrical problems. Its 1,200 nm range was also short of the desired 1,500 nm, but it was enough to reach Leningrad from the Norwegian Sea, even if Moscow would have required a more hazardous trip into a small slice of the Barents Sea.2 To ensure that it actually got to the target, each of the four nozzles on each stage was fitted with a device known as a jetevator, which was essentially a ring around the bottom of the nozzle that could be swiveled to divert the thrust. The second stage also had another serious problem to deal with. Unlike liquid-fueled rockets, solid rockets essentially can't be shut down after they're lit, which is less than ideal for a weapon that is designed to place a warhead on a very specific trajectory. The solution was a set of pyrotechnic plugs in the front wall of the second stage, which would be triggered right after the warhead separated, neutralizing the thrust from the nozzles. Read more...

March 14, 2021

Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Polaris Part 2

On November 15th, 1960, USS George Washington cast off for the first patrol by an American ballistic missile submarine. Both the submarine and the missile she carried, known as Polaris, had existed only on paper a mere four years previously, when the Navy was given permission to develop its own ballistic missile instead of participating in the Army's Jupiter program. This incredible achievement, accomplished by the Navy's Special Projects Office under Admiral William Raborn, had involved overcoming numerous technical problems in both the submarine and the missile, all at the same time, producing what was known as the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM).


George Washington taking on missiles before her first patrol

George Washington herself had an interesting history. The Navy's ship designers had begun work on SSBNs while Jupiter was still the primary focus, with the missiles to be incorporated into the sail. Polaris, on the other hand, was short enough to fit into the hull, and each submarine could carry a lot more missiles. The big question was how many, and opinions varied widely, with submarine operators preferring as few as possible (four still sounded good to them, maybe 8 at the outside) and budget analysts wanting as many as they could (32 sounds like a nice number). Eventually, both groups compromised on 16, in two rows aft of the sail, a number designers believed provided the best tradeoff between firepower and the structural demands imposed by 6' cuts in the pressure hull. This configuration also put the missiles squarely at the submarine's center of gravity and reduced any trim problems that might arise from firing a missile, and gave a good path for the beams of light used to align the missile's guidance systems. Read more...

March 12, 2021

Aurora Game 1 - Hostilities

I regret to inform you that, on October 22nd, 1973, the Geological Survey Vessel Nicholas Baudin was destroyed by missile fire from an unknown adversary in the V1054 Ophiuchi system. Unfortunately, onboard sensors provided no information on the assailant, and the missiles were not detected before impact. Some of the crew survived, but their capsule has only 14 days of life support, and none of our vessels are in a position to assist, even if they could be risked.

V1054 Ophiuchi is only six jumps from Sol, but several of those lack jump gates. Still, this should give impetus to an upgrade of our naval forces. We will be completing development of an improved nuclear pulse technology in four months, giving 25% more power in a given weight, and it will likely be very useful for new ships to counter this threat. Our own designers have a few sketches for your apprasial, taking advantage not only of the new engines, but also of improved sensor technologies developed since 1960. More radical designs can also be entertained, if any of you would like to suggest them.

Database can be found here.

Toulouse Mk II class Destroyer Escort (P) 8,000 tons 287 Crew 900 BP TCS 160 TH 500 EM 0

3125 km/s Armour 2-35 Shields 0-0 HTK 60 Sensors 0/0/0/0 DCR 4 PPV 57

Maint Life 2.53 Years MSP 281 AFR 128% IFR 1.8% 1YR 61 5YR 918 Max Repair 125.00 MSP

Capitaine de frégate Control Rating 2 BRG AUX

Intended Deployment Time: 12 months Morale Check Required

Improved Nuclear Pulse Engine EP250.00 (2) Power 500.0 Fuel Use 50.60% Signature 250.00 Explosion 10%

Fuel Capacity 419,000 Litres Range 18.6 billion km (69 days at full power)

10cm Railgun V10/C3 (19x4) Range 10,000km TS: 3,125 km/s Power 3-3 RM 10,000 km ROF 5

Beam Fire Control R48-TS6000 (2) Max Range: 48,000 km TS: 6,000 km/s 79 58 38 17 0 0 0 0 0 0

Improved Pebble Bed Reactor R12 (5) Total Power Output 61 Exp 5%

Active Search Sensor AS11-R1 (1) GPS 48 Range 11.1m km MCR 995k km Resolution 1

Saphir Mk II class Scout (P) 3,000 tons 71 Crew 297.9 BP TCS 60 TH 250 EM 0

4166 km/s JR 1-50 Armour 1-18 Shields 0-0 HTK 19 Sensors 12/16/0/0 DCR 1 PPV 0

Maint Life 2.78 Years MSP 222 AFR 72% IFR 1.0% 1YR 42 5YR 625 Max Repair 125.00 MSP

Capitaine de frégate Control Rating 1 BRG

Intended Deployment Time: 12 months Morale Check Required

J3000(1-50) Military Jump Drive Max Ship Size 3000 tons Distance 50k km Squadron Size 1

Improved Nuclear Pulse Engine EP250.00 (1) Power 250.0 Fuel Use 50.60% Signature 250.00 Explosion 10%

Fuel Capacity 449,000 Litres Range 53.2 billion km (147 days at full power)

Active Search Sensor AS36-R100 (1) GPS 2400 Range 36.3m km Resolution 100

EM Sensor EM2-16 (1) Sensitivity 16 Detect Sig Strength 1000: 31.6m km

Thermal Sensor TH2-12 (1) Sensitivity 12 Detect Sig Strength 1000: 27.4m km

This design is classed as a Military Vessel for maintenance purposes


The biggest incident of 1974 was the discovery of a second hostile power, who destroyed the survey ship Jacques Cartier. As before, we were unable to retrive the crew. However, telemetry showed she was destroyed by energy weapons, and given that she was in orbit of a planet, they might well have been ground based, reducing the threat substantially. We have finished three Saphir IIs, and dispatched one to each system. The first should arrive in a few days. Three more Saphir IIs are under construction, wrapping up in April and May. We don't have any plans for immediate follow-ons to those, although that could change based on the information our scouts bring back.

1975 database can be found here.

March 10, 2021

HMS Captain Part 2

The mid-1860s saw extensive debate in Britain over how to take turrets to sea. The inventor of the turret, Cowper Coles, whipped up public and political support for his vision, putting him at odds with Edward Reed, the Chief Constructor, and Robert Spencer Robinson, the Controller. Their attempt at building a turret ship, Monarch, worked quite well, but Coles had the backing to get a second vessel, Captain, built to his own design in a private shipyard. It was considerably lower to the water than Monarch, and completed heavily overweight. Although none of the players knew it, it was a disaster waiting to happen.


HMS Captain

All of this took place against the background of rapid developments in the theory of naval architecture. For centuries, stability had been calculated by guesswork and rule of thumb, and it was only around 1860 that any serious work was done to place it on a scientific and mathematical footing. The concept of metacentric height, a direct measure of stability, was well-known, but no calculations were made for Captain. To make matters worse, metacentric height stops being an accurate measure when the edge of the deck reaches the water, a limitation that was not fully appreciated at the time. To gain data for future ships, Laird requested that Captain be inclined, her metacentric height measured by moving known weights across the decks and the angle of heel produced recorded. This was done in late July 1870, although it took nearly a month for the results to be calculated,3 and even these were not enough to alarm anyone. By this point, Reed, feed up with political attacks on him, had resigned from the Admiralty to resume his career as a ship designer for private yards. Read more...

March 07, 2021

HMS Captain Part 1

In the early days of the ironclad, a vast array of different configurations were tried, as naval architects tried to work out how best to send heavy guns and armor to sea. One particularly notable issue was how best to fit turrets aboard ships that still had to carry masts and sails, and the process of working this out led to one of the great tragedies of the age.


Cowper Phipps Coles

The instigator of all this was a British naval officer by the name of Cowper Phipps Coles. Coles had served in the Black Sea during the Crimean War, and in 1859 he patented a design for a turret, a rotating armored gunhouse supported on rollers on the deck.4 The first turret of Coles design5 was installed on the armored battery Trusty. Tests with it were quite successful, and the Admiralty quickly ordered a pair of mastless coastal defense ship fitted with turrets, the first major British warships not powered by sail. One was an iron-hulled newbuild, HMS Prince Albert, named for one of Coles' major political backers, while the other was converted from the wooden three-decker Royal Sovereign. Both proved quite successful during trials, but the the inefficient steam engines of the day limited them to short-range operations, and the second line of warships. Read more...

March 04, 2021

Open Thread 73

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

Scott Alexander posted a link to a Proceedings article advocating privateering in a war with China earlier this week. Much interesting discussion ensued, and John Schilling and I were highlighted in a follow-up post.

DSL is also doing its monthly effortpost contest, which wraps up Monday. Lots of good entries this time.

2018 overhauls are Battleship Propulsion parts one, two, three and four, Strike Warfare and Sea Story - Late Night Forward Pumproom Test. 2019 overhauls are Museum Review - Singapore, Commercial Aviation Part 8, A Brief History of the Cruiser, the North Carolina Class, Pictures - Iowa Engine Room and The Spanish-American War Part 2. 2020 overhauls are The Range of a Carrier Wing - An Experiment, Pictures - Iowa Enlisted Mess and Merchant Ships Introduction and Passenger Vessels.

March 03, 2021

Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Polaris Part 1

The US Navy first took a ballistic missile to sea in 1947, when it fired a V-2 from the deck of the carrier Midway. But interest dried up quickly, as the US focused on aircraft as the main nuclear delivery platforms. To back these up, the Navy planned to use cruise missiles like Regulus instead of ballistic weapons. This began to change in the early 50s. The invention of the hydrogen bomb gave missile designers a warhead that could compensate for the inaccuracy of the weapon, and improvements in inertial navigation systems meant that missile accuracy improved significantly. The Navy was initially divided on the idea, with many fearful of the impact of such an expensive system on shipbuilding budgets, and little work was done until Admiral Arleigh Burke took office as Chief of Naval Operations in 1955.


A V-2 is fired from Midway

Burke was a strong proponent of the sea-based ballistic missile, but despite his swift actions on taking office, he was faced with a problem. Ballistic missiles had just been given the highest national priority, thanks to the work of the Killian Committee, which had laid the foundations of what became Mutually Assured Destruction. To limit competition in the new field, only four missile programs were to be authorized, and the limit had already been reached, with the Air Force's Atlas and Titan ICBMs and Thor Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), and the Army's Jupiter IRBM, under development by Warner von Braun's team in Huntsville. If the Navy was going to get missiles to sea any time soon, it would need a partner. The Air Force, unhappy with the changes required to make Thor adaptable to maritime use, turned them down, while the Army, seeking to break the Air Force monopoly on ballistic missiles, agreed to the partnership in November 1955. Read more...

February 28, 2021

Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Soviet SLBMs Part 1

Today, submarine-launched ballistic missiles form the backbone of the great power's nuclear deterrents. Nuclear submarines loaded with long-range weapons prowl below the waves, almost undetectable and ready to strike back, even if the homeland is destroyed. But while this state of affairs seems normal today, getting here required overcoming formidable challenges. Creating a land-based ballistic missile was difficult enough, but to take the system to sea opened up a whole new set of challenges.


A Soviet Golf class ballistic missile submarine

The biggest of these is guidance. Because ballistic missiles are fired at targets hundreds or thousands of miles away, the submarine needs to be able to locate itself precisely at all times, without giving away its position. Any inaccuracies in position translate directly to errors in the missile's point of impact. The missile itself is also a complex machine loaded with explosives and dangerous fuel, and the submarine needs to be able to support it and then launch it if the time comes. Launch is made more difficult by the fact that the platform is rolling, pitching, and probably underwater. But all of these problems were overcome in the late 50s and early 60s, and for the last half-century, SLBMs have been a leading guarantor of peace. Read more...