Naval Power in the Present War
PART VI: Naval Lessons of the War
By Lieutenant Charles C. Gill United States Navy
[The New York Times/Current History, June 1917]
This article is the sixth in a series contributed to CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE by Lieutenant Gill of the superdreadnought Oklahoma—with the sanction of the United States Naval Department—with special view to the lessons to be derived from past naval events of the war.
The advancement of naval science, increasing the complexities of ships and guns with a consequent greater perplexity and intricacy of the problems to be solved, both in preparing material and in the development of skill to operate the material, has emphasized the need of wise naval management. The importance of good plans, well understood and well carried out, is a lesson of the war which this country has been quick to grasp and act upon. The nation's naval policy is the fountain head of all naval plans, and it may be mentioned as a step toward the adoption of a wise policy that the recommendations of the Naval General Board on this particular question are now published in full.
The Naval General Board consists at present of five Admirals, three Captains, and two Commanders. Assignments to this duty are for about two years, arranged in overlapping terms so as to permit a changing personnel with a consequent influx of ideas from the active fleet without breaking up the continuity of the work. The duties are deliberative, to draw knowledge from past and current events, to study strategy and tactics as practiced now and in the past, at home and abroad; to advise respecting navy yards, bases, and stations; to make recommendations as to the size, composition, and disposition of fleets; to determine the characteristics of speed, armor, and armament for new ships; in short, to make plans both for naval preparations in time of peace and for employment of the fleets in time of war.
This board was created in 1903 and has established a reputation for painstaking and disinterested service. In determining our naval policy it would seem well to give the General Board's recommendations great weight as expressing the best technical opinion in our country. The following extracts are quoted from the board's report, dated July 30, 1915:
The navy of the United States should ultimately be equal to the most powerful maintained by any other nation of the world. It should be gradually increased to this point by such a rate of development, year by year, as may be permitted by the facilities of the country, but the limit above defined should be attained not later than 1925.
Strength of American Navy
The present war has taught that an effective navy is the logical defense for a country situated like the United States. And by an effective navy is meant, not an impotent navy like that of Spain in 1898, nor a semi-effective navy like the one now protecting Germany's immediate shores, but one adequate to seek and defeat enemy ships long before they can approach our coasts, thus protecting outlying possessions and the sea-borne trade so necessary to our national life; in other words, by an effective navy is meant one which stands for worldwide respect for legitimate American interests; one which is ready, if need be, to defend these interests in all parts of the world.
To determine what should be the composition of such a fleet is a difficult problem, to understand the details of which requires expert technical knowledge. These technical details are the province of the Naval General Board. The principles, however, from which these details are deduced are not hard to understand, and they are of first importance as the foundation on which the entire fabric of naval defense rests. As these principles of sea power become better understood by the general public, wiser legislation to safeguard national interests will follow. The recent three-year building program is a noteworthy step in the right direction.
Three-Year Building Program
The following table shows the vessels authorized in the three-year building program those for which the first appropriations have already been made, those for which estimates for the fiscal year 1918 have been submitted to cover the first year's work, and those which will remain to be covered in the Naval bill for the fiscal year 1919:
This program is a step toward the adoption of a policy aiming to make good the deficiencies of the past; but it is only a preliminary step, and if an adequate navy is to be provided this program will have to be both pushed and enlarged to the full extent of the nation's facilities.
Best Types of Warships
A fairly definite idea of the work which has to be done in order to make the sea power of the United States an effective guarantor of national security may be arrived at through a discussion of the various types of warships, noting briefly their characteristics, their uses, and the proportional numerical strength of each class required in building up a well-balanced United States Navy. The estimates which follow have to be made in the light of the best obtainable information. They are approximate and subject to modification from time to time to meet new conditions resulting from unforeseen developments. It is always to be remembered that the struggle for control of the seas is an ever-present spur to invention and progress in the development of the weapons used. Old ships are constantly being replaced by new models. Hence the relative value of the respective units may vary somewhat from year to year.
It is like a race for the largest stakes the world has to offer. Control of the seas is the objective and the nation which gains this control is the one that maintains a fleet powerful enough to overcome the strongest enemy fleet that it may encounter, and able to take and keep the sea in all weathers. Although the particular kinds of ships and guns used in answering the demands of naval strength come and go in continual evolution, still, these broad general demands of sea power remain the same. It is better, therefore, to study the abstract requirements of sea power and to note the trend of naval development in meeting these requirements than to rivet attention on particular types of ships now in use as though they were immutable and incapable of being deposed.
The Question of Guns
The cornerstone of naval power is the gun; and the measure of a nation's sea power is the strength of her battleship fleet. In spite of the development of the mine and torpedo into important factors, the high-power naval gun is still supreme; so it has been in the past, so it is now; and so it will probably continue to be in the future.
As has previously been pointed out the only effective naval defense is a fleet strong enough to keep the enemy at a distance. Germany's fleet, although strong enough to prevent the enemy from landing on German shores, has not been powerful enough to dispute the control of the high seas, and has, therefore, proved non-effective. A navy adequate to defend must be powerful enough either to defeat the enemy fleet on the high seas or to contain it in enemy home ports. The main reliance of such an effective navy is the long-range gun.
There is general agreement among experts as to this principle, that the gun is the prime consideration in naval warfare; but the different types installed in the newest ships of the various countries indicate somewhat divergent views as to what is the best design of naval gun. It is obvious that the heavier the projectile and the harder it hits the more will be the damage done. In a general way the principal considerations are: First, accuracy; second, high velocity; third, weight of projectile; fourth, durability of the gun to sustain continuous fire; and fifth, rapidity, or volume of fire. It is thus seen that the size of the projectile is limited by the efficiency of the propelling power and by the structural capacities of the gun and mount. In other words, the heavier the shell, consistent with high velocity, long range, and accuracy, the better; but if the structural durability of the gun is threatened, or if velocity and accuracy are sacrificed in order to throw a heavier projectile, a point is soon reached where damaging power is lost instead of gained.
The varying conditions of sea and visibility under which naval actions may be fought also tend to modify the effectiveness of the different sizes and designs of guns according to the circumstances which may exist at the time of any particular engagement. The gun which would win a fight at close range in misty weather might be defeated by the same enemy gun on a clear day at long range. At the shorter ranges the gun of moderate size might dominate a larger and more powerful enemy gun by greater rapidity and volume of fire. Although this is a contingency to be reckoned with, still, the present tendency is to increase the size of the projectile as fast as improvements in the powder and gun structure permit; and this tendency appears to be one likely to continue in the future. We may expect, therefore, that the size of naval guns will increase step by step with scientific improvements in gun construction and powder.
Requirements of Battleships
Since the gun is the prime consideration, the other characteristics of a battleship depend upon what design of ship is considered most serviceable to the purpose of the gun. Some idea of the requirements of a battleship may be had by keeping in mind that it is desirable to mount as many guns in one ship as is consistent with having a homogeneous fleet possessing tactical mobility, moderate speed, long cruising radius, seaworthiness, habitability, and protection from the blows of the enemy whether delivered from above or below the water.
It requires careful weighing of proportionate advantages and disadvantages to harmonize these characteristics into the combination which will produce the best possible type of battleship.
The advantages of ships of large tonnage over smaller vessels are many; more heavy guns can be carried, the platform is steadier, the cruising radius is larger, and the habitability and seaworthiness are better, and more effective means of protection can be installed. On the other hand, there is a limit of size beyond which the advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages; the question of expense enters, and any very large increase in the size of warships might be argued against on the grounds that it would be like putting "too many eggs in one basket." Maneuvering abilities are adversely affected by very large displacements, and the depths of the various waterways as well as the accommodations of canals and dry docks impose definite limits to the size of ships.
On the whole it may be expected that the tendency to increase the tonnage of battleships will continue for quite some time. It would also appear an improvident policy for any country to increase the size of its battleships by radical changes of large increments, because this would entail expense and a bad effect upon the homogeneity of the fleet. These objections might easily outweigh the advantages gained. It may be assumed, therefore, that future increase in the size of warships will be a gradual growth with a very likely decreasing acceleration.
The influence of new inventions and new ideas in the development of the lesser units of the navy have caused the Naval General Board to modify its original recommendations respecting the proportions of these lesser units, but "the fundamental fact that the power of a navy is to be measured by the number and efficiency of its heavy fighting units battleships has remained unchanged,"* [* See report of the Naval General Board for 1916 program.] and since 1903 the board has consistently recommended a program aiming at an adequate navy, with a basic strength of forty-eight battleships by 1919.
Necessary Auxiliary Units
Battleships alone, however, do not constitute a complete and well-balanced navy. In order that the heavy guns may work to their best advantage, the battleships carrying them call for powerful fast scouts to break through and get information, and also to drive back enemy scouts seeking information. Destroyers are needed to attack and confuse the enemy ships, and at the same time guard their own large ships from similar attacks. Submarines are necessary to help defend the coasts and also to operate as a tactical sub-division of the fleet. Mine layers are needed to harass and menace enemy ships, while mine sweepers and patrols are required to search for enemy mines and submarines.In addition to these combatant units, auxiliaries, including transports, repair ships, hospital ships, and supply ships, are essential to the life and vigor of a fighting navy.
The floating instruments of sea power, moreover, must be backed by suitably situated and properly defended permanent bases and navy yards in which ships may seek rest and rehabilitation. Strategically situated island possessions are also needed for naval bases, by which lines of communication may be kept open to such temporary advance bases as the requirements of a particular campaign may demand.
It is thus seen that, while relative naval power is primarily measured by the strength of the respective battleship fleets of the various naval powers, the battleships should be attended by the necessary auxiliaries in order to exert their maximum effectiveness.
Battle Cruisers as Scouts
The battle cruiser is the most powerful type of scout, and in addition to high speed has great offensive powers, together with endurance and a moderate protection of armor. While the chief function of this type is to get information, it has, because of these offensive and defensive characteristics, additional uses. The battle cruiser may fight for information and break through a hostile screen; she may support the lighter craft of her own fleet, beat back enemy scouts and guard the main body from surprise; she may be used to protect national sea routes and attack those of the enemy; and in battle she may operate as a fast wing and take a position favorable for using both guns and torpedoes.
It is thus seen that the battle cruiser can do all that the lighter scout can do and more, but these greater powers entail greater cost. The essential characteristic of a scout is speed in conjunction with a large cruising radius. If heavy guns and armor protection can be added without compromising the speed, so much the better, and all scouts would be battle cruisers were it not for the perplexities in construction and great expense involved.
The information service of a fleet requires a large number of scouts, and in order to produce them without undue cost the light cruiser has been developed, small in size and lightly armored, but with adequate speed and cruising radius for scout duty. The unarmored light cruiser, carrying torpedoes and intermediate guns, may be regarded as a development of the destroyer; it is larger, more habitable, carries larger guns, and is more useful as a scout. The ultimate development of the light cruiser would appear to be a larger unarmored ship with great speed, carrying torpedoes and a few of the most powerful naval guns. Such a ship could outrun anything it could not fight, and it would take almost an equal number of battle cruisers to deny information sought by a group of these big-gun fast scouts making determined efforts to break through or to get around the opposing battle cruisers. The thin armor of the battle cruiser would afford protection against the small guns of light cruisers, but would be of no avail against the heavy guns of this new type of scout.
Unarmored Battle Scouts
At present there is talk of a ship to be developed by this country which might be called the "battle scout," its characteristics being extreme speed and maximum gun power without armor protection. Those that favor this type hold that just as the armored cruiser fell into discredit so will the battle cruiser fall into discredit upon the advent of the "battle scout." The idea is that the battleship is for the main strength of the fighting line, having extreme gun power and extreme endurance and armor protection; that the logical auxiliary of such a battle fleet is a class of ships having extreme speed and extreme gun power without armor protection; that any compromise between these two, such as a battle cruiser, is unsound from the standpoint of economy that is, getting best results from money expended.
In the present emergency the lack of suitable scouts is particularly conspicuous. One of the reasons why more scouts have not been built is that the need of battleships and destroyers has been considered more urgent. It has always been argued that scouts could be provided much more easily and quickly than could the more distinctively fighting types of naval vessels. The plan, however, to requisition and buy fast mail and passenger steamers for use in the information service has been somewhat upset by the submarine warfare of Germany, and the present need of scouts is keenly felt. That the Naval General Board is alive to this need may be inferred from the following excerpts taken from the recommendations submitted for the 1916 program:
In the struggle to build up the purely distinctive fighting ships of the navy battleships, destroyers, and submarines the cruising and scouting element of the fleet has been neglected in recent years, and no cruisers or scouts have been provided for since 1904. This leaves the fleet peculiarly lacking in this element so necessary for information in a naval campaign, and of such great value in clearing the sea of torpedo and mining craft, in opening and protecting routes of trade for our commerce, and in closing and prohibiting such routes to the commerce of the enemy. The General Board believes that this branch of the fleet has been too long neglected, and recommends that the construction of this important and necessary type be resumed.
The 1916 program did not provide for any scouts, but since then in the three-year program, beginning in 1917, provision has been made for six battle cruisers and ten scout cruisers.
Value of Destroyers
The destroyer, a familiar and popular fighting ship, the usefulness of which the experience of the present war has clearly demonstrated, displaces about 1,000 tons, has no armor protection, carries torpedoes and small-calibre guns, and possesses high speed, quick manoeuvring qualities, and sufficient radius to permit cruising with the fleet. Destroyers have a wide range of employment, including scouting, patrolling, convoying, and fighting. They are almost indispensable to the battleship fleet. While cruising both during the day and at night the destroyers help screen the capital ships and are ready for any kind of emergency duty.
When the time of battle comes it would be hard to overestimate the value of destroyers in making attack on the enemy capital ships, in breaking up the projected attacks of enemy destroyers, in delivering the deathblow to crippled enemy ships, and making smoke screens for tactical purposes, either to confuse the enemy or to envelop and protect any of their own ships which may happen to be hard pressed.
An excerpt from the report of the Naval General Board dated Nov. 17, 1914, reads as follows: "After mature consideration of all the elements involved the General Board concluded that a well-balanced fighting fleet for all purposes of offense or defense calls for a relative proportion of four destroyers to one battleship."
Submarines of Limited Value
The outstanding characteristic of the submarine, as the name indicates, is its ability to navigate below the surface of the water. This enables it to evade the enemy, to make a surprise attack, and to escape by hiding. These faculties are manifestly suitable for the weaker belligerent to use against the stronger enemy. Navies that dominate, that have power to seek and destroy in the open, are not dependent upon abilities to evade and to hide.
In making a brief survey of the naval activities of the war, it is seen that the submarine has been of no great value to the superior navies controlling the seas, but has been practically the only effective naval weapon of the inferior fleets. When used against the enemy battle squadrons it has influenced strategy and tactics and scored a few minor successes in sinking some of the older men-of-war, but generally speaking has produced no very important results. When used against merchant ships the submarine has been unable to attain effectiveness while complying with the rules and usages of international law, but by resorting to unscrupulous methods it has become a dangerous commerce destroyer.
The war has shown that the chief tactical value of the submarine is for defense, to hold the enemy at a distance. The fleet submarine has also demonstrated an offensive value which may be useful in attaining a tactical advantage. It may be inferred, therefore, that the United States needs submarines both to help defend her coasts and to operate as a tactical subdivision of the fleet.
The General Board recommends that, in addition to the submarines for guarding our coasts, a division of larger fleet submarines be built as the beginning of a powerful underwater contingent capable of cruising with a fleet in distant operations.
The United States Navy is also deficient in the types of auxiliaries less distinctively combative, but still necessary to the maintenance of a fighting navy. These include colliers, oil-fuel ships, repair ships, mother ships for submarines and aircraft, transports, and hospital ships. The characteristics and uses of these vessels are obvious, and the respective number needed may be determined by logistical calculations. Lesser naval units, including mine layers, mine sweepers, patrol ships, and submarine chasers, also have work to do in modern warfare and must be provided for in adequate numbers.
American Navy's Present Role
In the present war, since the combined allied fleets are overwhelmingly superior to the battle fleets of our enemies, the immediate mission of the American Navy is to combat the submarine menace. In giving priority to building the lesser units employed in this phase of naval warfare, and in urging the shipyards to greater effort in building traders to replace the merchant tonnage sunk by mine and torpedo, there is grave danger that the people may lose sight of the fact that the battleship fleet still remains the chief guarantor of national security. Battleships cannot be improvised; it takes years to construct them; hence, prudence demands that our capital ships receive continual attention in order that national security in future years may not be jeopardized.
For the first time in the history of the United States Navy a building program covering a period of years has been adopted; though it falls short of the recommendations of the General Board, it indicates an awakening to our naval shortcomings and a desire on the part of the people to correct them. The fleet we already have, though behind the British and German Navies in size, still affords cause for gratification as to quality. It may be fairly claimed in no boastful temper that our individual first-line ships, in construction, in guns, in ammunition, and in gunnery, acknowledge no superior. This is encouraging, but not satisfying. So much remains to be done that more cannot be said than that a fair start has been made.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald