Murphy's Law: What New Technologies Changed Naval Warfare in the 20th Century


May 15, 2012: Naval warfare has long been one of technological advantages. For five centuries the navy with the best sailors and the best technology (in that order) have come out on top. The 20th century saw an avalanche of new naval technology. There was so much new stuff that it's instructive to look at which technologies had the biggest impact. Often, it's things that don't seem so important at first that later turn out to have been decisive items. The list below contains ten items that grew to become crucial technological developments for naval warfare.

1-Operations Research (OR). The analytical application of mathematical solutions for many problems first appeared in the 1930s, and became crucial during World War II for developing more effective ways to use new weapons. This became particularly useful in anti-submarine warfare but eventually led to improvements in just about all aspects of naval warfare. This increased the capabilities of the navy, playing a major role in making the USN the most powerful Navy in history. OR continues to perform largely unheralded miracles by identifying elusive solutions and detecting well concealed flaws.

2-Gyroscopic compass. This early 20th century invention had a far reaching impact on naval warfare. Initially it made navigation more efficient for all ships. But the gyroscope technology led to vast improvements in fire control and, eventually, inertial navigation systems. This made possible all manner of anti-ship missiles. So, if you're wondering why all the guns went away, this is the main reason why.

3-Gas Turbines. The most obvious use of gas turbines is in jet engine equipped carrier aircraft. But ten years after jet aircraft began to replace piston powered warplanes on aircraft, the first ships (hydrofoils) began to use gas turbine power plants. But by the late 1960s, the huge TF39 jet engine developed for the C-5 aircraft was being reworked as a maritime power plant (the LM2500). Over three decades later this gas turbine ship engine is common not only in merchant ships but warships as well. The LM2500 is efficient, reliable, and capable of providing quick bursts of speed not possible with older steam or diesel power plants. Just as the revolutionary small tube steam plants went unnoticed early in the 20th century, the LM2500 also dramatically changed what a warship could expect from its power plant.

4-Battery technology. In the latter third of the 20th century battery technology made major strides, and this heavily influenced the design of naval weapons and equipment. Weapons like missiles, in particular, became smaller, more reliable, and deadlier because of smaller, more powerful, and longer lasting batteries. Try and run today's fleet with 1960s, era battery technology and you'll find that you can't.

5-Servron. Developed out of necessity during World War II because of a lack of sufficient forward bases in the vast Pacific, the service squadrons became a permanent fixture in the U.S. Navy. Ships now normally stay at sea for up to six months at a time, being resupplied at sea by a Servron. New technologies were developed to support the effective use of the seagoing supply service. Few other navies have been able to match this capability, mainly because of the expense of the Servron ships and the training required to do at sea replenishment.

6-Merchant ship automation. Throughout the 20th century merchant ships have become less labor intensive. This has been due largely to market pressures. But warships have been resistant to this trend, largely because of tradition, the availability of many sailors, and damage control concerns. Lower manning will become more of a factor in the 21st century but the trend is a 20th century one.

7-Oceanography. Navies have always taken the lead in charting the details of coastal areas, where ships operate most frequently and are in most danger from uncharted objects. But the 20th century saw an enormous growth in the study of the high seas and what lay beneath. Much of this was in support of submarine operations and anti-submarine warfare. The greater understanding of the oceans has made naval operations more effective in many ways that often go unnoticed but never unappreciated.

8-Weather forecasting. For centuries unpredictable weather was the greatest danger to fleets at sea. Dramatic improvements in weather forecasting (especially weather satellites) have greatly reduced the risk of weather related damage for fleets and made operations more effective.

9-Personnel screening. As warships have become more complex, so have the number and complexity of the jobs sailors have to do. The ancient practice of signing any warm body and later deciding who was trainable for complex tasks crumpled under the pressure to get the right sailor for the right job before you sent people aboard a ship. As the navy became more of a high tech enterprise the personnel selection routines borrowed heavily from those developed in the commercial sector to solve similar problems. Without this shift in personnel policies the modern U.S. Navy would not be possible.

10-Scuba equipment. This was a 19th century development that was perfected in the 1930s, and was quickly adapted for naval warfare. Scuba equipped commandos often proved essential for successful amphibious operations. The downside of scuba equipment is that it provided underwater commandos with a practical weapon to use against warships.

Tomorrow, What New Technologies May Change Naval Warfare in the 21st Century.





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