Monday, July 05, 2004

The Return of the Dreadnought

Nearly a hundred years ago the British Royal Navy launched a revolutionary warship, HMS Dreadnought. The was the first "all big-gun" capital ship powered by steam turbines and her advent made all other battleships, including older vessels of the Royal Navy itself, instantly obsolete. She was the expression of the almost abstract idea of sea control. Because vessels of her class could theoretically sweep the enemy battle fleet from the oceans and fall upon commerce, their mere existence would deny the use of the oceans to the enemy unless a rival fleet could sink them.

In one of the great ironies of history classic sea control passed from Britannia to the United States during the Second World War. For nearly sixty years vessels have plied the great waters at the sufferance and under the guaranty of the USN. Yet even as the USN attained supremacy of the deep ocean, the Blue Water, the character of its principal enemies changed from rival great powers to teeming nests of terrorists in the deep hinterland. To this enemy ashore, indifferent to maritime commerce and sheltering behind civilian populations, the Blue Water navies held no terrors. Two hundred and forty one Marines were blown up in their barracks right under the huge guns of the USS New Jersey and there wasn't a damn thing the Navy could do about it. Colin Powell recalls:

I was developing a strong distaste for the antiseptic phrases coined by State Department officials for foreign interventions which usually had bloody consequences for the military, words like "presence," "symbol," "signal," "option on the table," "establishment of credibility." Their use was fine if beneath them lay a solid mission. But too often these words were used to give the appearance of clarity to mud.

On August 29, before the airport truck bombing, two Marines had been killed by Muslim mortar fire; on September 3, two more, and on October 16, two more. Against Weinberger's protest, McFarlane, now in Beirut, persuaded the President to have the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey start hurling 16-inch shells into the mountains above Beirut, in World War II style, as if we were softening up the beaches on some Pacific atoll prior to an invasion. What we tend lo overlook in such situations is that other people will react much as we would. When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American "referee" had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target, the exposed Marines at the airport.

Although Powell had hoped America would never again stick "its hand into a thousand year-old hornet's nest" Beirut was to prove the rule, rather than the exception in the coming decades. The new enemy facing America did not have to cross the ocean in fleets to kill thousands. They got visas, flew over the Navy in commercial flights and crashed wide-body airliners into skyscrapers. The Navy could no longer remain serene on the Blue Water. It would have to wade ashore to exterminate the enemy in his own nest.

Suddenly, the inshore water or Brown Water became as important as the great ocean highways. The control of narrow straits, the security of harbors as traditionally safe as New York became debatable. Asian countries worried about the vulnerability of their lifeline through the Straits of Malacca, bounded on either side by two Muslim majority countries. A Navy which had never come close to losing a major surface combatant since the close of the Second World War nearly lost the Burke-class superdestroyer USS Cole while docked in Aden. Yet this was but a harbinger of a worse fear: ever since the September 11 attacks the threat of a nuclear detonation aboard a ship docking at an American port became a recurring nightmare.

The US Navy responded by reinventing itself as both an inshore defense and power projection force. All ships approaching the United States, whether merchantmen, smallcraft or men-of-war would be tracked and boarded if necessary. Sensors would be sown on the seabeds. Long endurance airborne sensors would throw an aegis over American approaches. That was the shield. For a sword, the Navy envisioned basing expeditionary logistics at sea in anticipation that America would take the fight right to enemy doorstep. To provide immediate fire support to relatively small groups of soldiers and Marines maneuvering in the enemy heartland the Navy literally needed to create a terrestrial equivalent of the early 20th century concept of sea control.

The notional problem was to project the fleet's firepower hundreds of miles inland on a 24x7 basis and to make it available at a few minute's notice. Part of the solution was to bring extra-long range manned and unmanned aerial strike assets into the Navy's inventory. The other was to reinvent, almost exactly a century later, the 21st century equivalent of the HMS Dreadnought. The electromagnetic rail gun which is being developed for employment in the Navy's next class of destroyers, the DDX, allows the entire ship's power output to be directed into an acceleration device which will shoot a projectile at anywhere from Mach 7 to Mach 16 clear out of the earth's atmosphere onto targets hundreds of miles away. They will be devastating.

To put things in perspective, our current 5-inch gun has a muzzle energy of 10 megajoules. ... In contrast, naval rail guns will achieve muzzle energies from 60 to 300 megajoules. ... Research indicates that a notional first-generation naval rail gun could deliver a guided projectile with an impact velocity of Mach 5 to targets at ranges of 250 miles at a rate of greater than six rounds per minute.

... An important advantage of rail guns is the ability to exploit the high kinetic energy stored in the projectile ... One test demonstrated that the release of the rail gun projectile's kinetic energy alone would create a 10-foot crater, 10 feet deep in solid ground, and achieve projectile penetration to 40 feet.

Since the shells will be solid darts, a destroyer will carry 10,000 rounds in its current magazine space, without ever again facing the danger of a powder explosion. The DDX, in common with the other new generation USN vessels, will be all-electric warships running an Integrated Power System (IPS) that will enable the ships captain to transfer the entire energy output of the vessel at need, to defensive lasers, propulsion or to offensive darts which will eventually range out to thousands of miles. If the new carriers (CVX) will provide the remote sensors, the manned and unmanned attack aircraft to range over the enemy, the new dreadnoughts can provide a rain of kinetic darts. Unlike aircraft which must be held ready on deck or prepared for flight, the rail guns can fire at very short notice.

A first-order analysis comparing the 200-mile volume of fires capability of a single hypersonic naval rail gun to the ordnance delivery capacity of a carrier air wing of F/A-18s is instructive. In the first eight hours of conflict, a single naval rail gun could deliver twice the payload, three times the energy, to ten times as many fixed aim points as carrier aviation.

Yet like the Dreadnought of 1906, the technology will remain lifeless unless harnessed to a valid theory. Absent a conception of victory, it will remain the mere "presence," "symbol," "signal," "option on the table," "establishment of credibility" -- the diplomatic stage props -- that Colin Powell derided in 1984. Without the political will to defeat the enemies of civilization, the naval marvels of the 21st century will be as impotent as the guns of the USS New Jersey at Beirut airport.