May 23, 2021


The basic idea behind the gun director is simple enough. Naval guns tend to be unpleasant things to be around, with all the noise and smoke, and it would be nice if the person doing the aiming didn't have to be right next to one where it might interfere with his work. This was not a new idea when the fire-control revolution broke out around 1900, and the first directors had been installed on warships three decades earlier. Given the technology and tactics of the day, it wasn't particularly flexible. Each gun had fixed positions which would converge its fire on a specific point at a specific range, initially dead abeam at a range of 800 or 1100 yards, with later systems having more options for both range and bearing. The director operator would help guide the ship so that the enemy was in that location, then fire all of the guns electrically when the ship was level, helping to mitigate the problems of roll that plagued naval gunnery. This worked well enough with the slow ships of the day, and the short range meant that the danger space was large enough to compensate for errors in rangefinding.

A caricature of Percy Scott

But by 1890 or so, increased speeds and ranges had made the traditional fixed director obsolete, and the increasing size of guns meant that most ships mounted only two turrets, so the duty of gunlaying returned to operators in individual turrets. But this hiatus lasted only 15 years or so before Percy Scott, who had initiated major improvements in British gunnery starting with continuous aim from lighter guns, realized that for best accuracy, he really did need to separate the man doing the aiming from the smoke and shock of the gun firing. There were several reasons for this. Having an individual aimer for each turret worked well enough when there were only two turrets, but the arrival of Dreadnought meant this was no longer the case. Increased ranges meant that if each turret fired when it was ready, spotting would be nearly impossible and the smoke from one turret would likely interfere with its neighbors. Read more...

May 19, 2021

The Future of the Aircraft Carrier

I recently went on Russell Hogg's Subject to Change podcast to talk about the future of the aircraft carrier (and a bunch of other stuff). This is a topic I've discussed before, primarily looking at the difficulty of killing a carrier, but I thought it was worth turning my attention to the positive case for the carrier.

Theodore Roosevelt leads her battle group

Fundamentally, the reason that aircraft carriers exist today, and will continue to exist far into the future is that they are tremendously versatile platforms, useful in a wide variety of situations. This is characteristic of naval forces more generally, which have the ability to contribute to national power throughout a broad spectrum of operations in ways unmatched by land forces and land-based air. An aircraft carrier combines the flexibility of sea power, the impact of air power and serious diplomatic heft all into one convenient package. Read more...

May 16, 2021

Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Poseidon

Even as the Polaris A3 was being developed, thoughts in the Fleet Ballistic Missile community turned to its successor. It would have to fit into the existing SSBNs, but there was still significant room to grow the missile, as the shock protection had been massively over-designed for the 54" diameter Polaris, and all but the first 10 boats could accommodate missiles up to 74". The big question was what this new missile would offer that would make it a good investment so soon after Polaris A3, particularly as the wider Navy was wary of diverting more funds away from its traditional missions.

The ultimate answer was a new technology, Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRV). Polaris A3 had pioneered a Multiple Reentry Vehicle (MRV) system that placed a trio of small warheads in a triangle around the target, to maximize destruction in an urban area, particularly in the face of the Soviet's new Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems. The idea behind MIRV was to fit even more warheads onto a single missile, with a guided bus that would place each on course for a different target before releasing it and adjusting course to the next one. This would not only make the new missile cheaper per target, but also more effectively saturate ABM systems. First, the new technology would separate the warheads more widely, reducing the chance that a single defensive missile could take out more than one. Second, it was pointed out that the most effective decoy was one that was the same weight and shape as a real warhead, which meant it might as well actually be a warhead. Read more...

May 14, 2021

Open Thread 78

It is time, once again, for our regular open thread. Talk about whatever you want, so long as it's not culture war. Also, a reminder to everyone that our May virtual meetup is tomorrow, 5/16, at 1 PM Central (GMT-5).

2018 overhauls are Main Guns Part 4, my review of Midway, Russian Battleships Part 3, Falklands Part 1, So You Want to Build a Modern Navy - Strategy Part 2 and the Super-Dreadnoughts. 2019 overhauls are Shells parts three and four, my review of Fort Sill, The Spanish-American War Part 4, Falklands Part 14, Pictures - Mikasa Part 1 and Battleship Aviation Part 1. 2020 overhauls are Coastal Defenses Part 2, Oil Tankers, Nuclear Weapons at Sea - Heavy Attack and my post on the 2004 UFO incident, although that last is less certain thanks to information I've dug up since I wrote it.

It's also the first anniversary of the start of my Aurora tutorial, which coincides with the recent release of C# Aurora V1.13.

May 12, 2021

Naval Airships Part 6

After WWI, the US Navy was by far the world leader in naval lighter-than-air aviation. It first attempted to buy airships from Europe, but these plans fell through, and its first rigid airship was the American-built Shenandoah, the first airship to fly from coast to coast. She was joined by the German-built Los Angeles, but broke up in a storm over Ohio in October 1925.

Los Angeles over Manhattan

Despite the disaster, the Navy's lighter-than-air program survived, although it remained on a fiscal shoestring for the rest of its life. Because Shenandoah's loss resulted in most of the program's helium escaping, Los Angeles was grounded until March 1926. But her return to flight, under the command of Charles Rosendahl, the senior survivor of the Shenandoah crash, allowed the USN to begin the practical work of learning how to operate rigid airships. Rosendahl, an aggressive and charismatic officer with a boundless faith in the possibilities of lighter-than-air flight, was the perfect choice for the job. In the early days, the techniques for handling the ship on the ground had been limited to the use of hundreds of men to walk the airships in and out of hangar. Occasionally, things would go wrong, and the airship would lift too early, carrying some of the ground crew with it. They were under strict orders not to let go if this happened, as it would make the problem worse. Later, a rail-mounted stub mast was developed, which would hold the airship at the nose and tail. It would be pulled out of the hangar to a "mooring-out circle", where the nose would be pointed into the wind, and the tail released, allowing it to take to the air gracefully. Read more...

May 09, 2021

The Littoral Combat Ship Part 3

The Littoral Combat Ship was originally developed from proposals in the late 90s for a small, semi-disposable coastal combatant that would allow the USN to access coastal waters that would otherwise be denied to it, relying on high speed and various buzzwords to fulfill its mission. It turned into one of the worst procurement disasters in US history, producing two classes of very fast and rather underarmed ships that don't have any of the modules they were intended to carry. Despite this, a total of 35 ships have been ordered.

Independence, Manchester and Tulsa operate together

This is a particular problem because nobody is quite sure what to do with them. While the idea of a ship specializing in access to waters where enemies would rather we didn't go seems appealing in today's confrontation with China, the original plan was rather short on details of how this would be done. To some extent, its proponents seemed to advocate simply accepting that some of the ships would be lost, a controversial position in the USN, which has never been particularly accepting of disposable warships. Worse, the actual ships currently in service are far too large and expensive to be considered disposable. That means any ship deployed in disputed waters has to be capable of surviving an attack, a task for which the LCS is extremely poorly suited. Both variants are armed only with a handful of RAM point-defense missiles, which are perfectly adequate for self-defense in lower-threat environments1 but would require cover from something like a Burke if operating near China. In theory, the modular nature of the LCS should allow this to be solved, but any serious air-defense capability would probably require a new radar, which seems to have been a deal-breaker.2 Read more...

May 08, 2021

Aurora Game 1 - 1977

1976 was a reasonably smooth year. We began construction of the new AKX Mk II, as well as retooling yards on the new railgun destroyer escorts. Next year, we plan to start construction on the monitors proposed a couple of years ago, or possibly on minelayers if the consensus is to go with those instead. Beyond that, it was just the normal business of moving equipment to our colonies. The other news was that Opinuchus Primere passed the 10 million mark, and we dispatched a frigate to cover it.

Database is here.

May 05, 2021

The Littoral Combat Ship Part 2

The Littoral Combat Ship did not have a smooth birth. Initially conceived as a sort of coastal corvette, it was adopted by Donald Rumsfeld in his attempt to transform how the US military did business, and soon morphed into a quite large and very fast ship that was supposed to carry modular systems to allow it to fulfill a variety of missions in dangerous coastal waters. Cost overruns drew Congressional ire, but the program survived, and 35 ships are either in service or under contract.

An unmanned MQ-8B Fire Scout comes in to land aboard Coronado (Independence class)

But what sort of ships are they? Two different variants have been procured, the LCS-1/Freedom class, built by Lockheed Martin and Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin, and the LCS-2/Independence class built by Austal USA at their yard in Mobile, Alabama.3 Despite being built to the same specifications, they are radically different designs. The Lockheed ship is a semi-planing monohull made of steel, while Austal's is a striking aluminum trimaran, both forms driven by the requirement for a speed of around 45 kts, which isn't really practical with a conventional hull.4 Read more...

May 02, 2021

The Littoral Combat Ship Part 1

The largest new addition to the American fleet over the last decade has been the two classes of Littoral Combat Ship. The LCS was trumpeted as a revolutionary new platform that would greatly enhance American capability in coastal waters, but which has proved intensely controversial both during development and in service.

LCS-1 Freedom (top) and LCS-2 Independence

The LCS originated in the 1990s, as the USN struggled to find missions in the aftermath of the Cold War. The first result was a destroyer dedicated to the land-attack mission, which eventually became the Zumwalt class destroyers. But this was obviously going to be a large and expensive ship, and various officers were quick to propose a smaller, cheaper alternative. The most prominent was Arthur Cebrowski, president of the Naval War College, who proposed a concept called Streetfighter in a 1999 Proceedings article. Streetfighter would be small, fast, and thanks to a complex of buzzwords would be able to enter the enemy's coastal waters, which were too dangerous for bigger ships. Exactly how this would be done was not entirely clear, nor was what "Streetfighter" itself would look like. Read more...

April 30, 2021

Open Thread 77

I have a couple of housekeeping things. First, apologies for the lack of Aurora last week. I've been distracted, and just didn't get around to it. Second, I'm planning to scale back the virtual meetups to about once a month, now that the lockdown is winding down. Third, I'm going to designate this the semi-regular thread for ideas on what to write about. As usual, I make no promises, but anything good will go on my idea list.

2018 overhauls are British Battleships in WWII*, Sea Stories - The Swimming Pool and the Fuzes, Main Guns parts one, two and three, Life Aboard Iowa and So You Want to Build a Modern Navy - Strategy Part 1. 2019 overhauls are Shells Part 2, the Four Chaplains, Continuous At Sea Deterrent, Megasilverfist's review of Polly Woodside and So You Want to Build a Battleship - Construction Part 3*. 2020 overhauls are my review of Historic Flight Spokane, Falklands Part 21 and Merchant Ships - Bulk Carriers.