The 5 Deadliest Experimental Warships of All Time
"Each ship introduced critical new technologies and enabled practice, experimentation and refined design practices."
Earlier this week the Zumwalt (DDG-1000) began sea trials. The first of a probable three ships, Zumwalt once represented the future of U.S. naval surface warfare. Budget shortfalls, changed priorities and predictable cost overruns cut the projected purchase from a fleet-sustaining thirty-two units to an experimental trio of ships.
Still, Zumwalt represents a technological marvel, including an array of innovations that set her apart from every other ship in the U.S. Navy, and indeed the world. Her value as an experimental test bed for new concepts, architectures and technologies may, over time, exceed her value as a military unit. In this she joins a long tradition of experimental warships, vessels that often had more impact as technological marvels than as useful ships of war. Here are the five most important experimental vessels of the modern seafaring age:
In 1905, the Royal Navy laid down HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first all-big-gun ship. American and Japanese engineers had explored the potential of such ships, but neither dove into construction with the enthusiasm of First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher. Dreadnought came about through the combination of a series of architectural innovations, including improved fire control and superior propulsion. When she entered service, Dreadnought immediately became the world’s most powerful battleship, faster and more heavily armed than any contemporary.
Dreadnought reset the global battleship race. Pre-dreadnoughts (Dreadnought gave her name to both the old and the new generations of battleship) immediately became second-class ships. Traditional naval powers quickly invested huge resources in the construction of dreadnought fleets, and smaller powers soon followed suit. Dreadnought herself served until 1918, drawing blood only once, when she rammed and sank a German U-boat.
USS Monitor was not the first ironclad warship, or even the first to have an entirely iron hull. However, she included so many technological innovations that she richly merits inclusion of this list. The impetus for construction of Monitor was a report that the navy of the Confederate States was converting an older, wooden warship into an ironclad in order to break the blockade of Hampton Roads.
With a single turret sitting atop a long metal raft, Monitor looked like no other warship of the time (or since). However, when she reached Hampton Roads she managed to turn back CSS Virginia (which had previously wreaked havoc on the wooden ships blockading the port) in the first clash of ironclads. Monitor patrolled the area until advancing Union troops forced the scuttling of Virginia. Several months later, she sank in a storm en route to North Carolina. By that time, the U.S. Navy had built several more examples of the type, even as France and the United Kingdom had begun serious investment in armored cruisers.
HMS Furious holds the distinction of being at the center of two experiments; the first failed, the second successful. In the early days of World War I, First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher sought specialized warships for the “Baltic Project,” a half-baked plan to invade Germany’s Baltic coastline. Debate endures regarding how seriously Fisher pursued this project, but his advocacy resulted in HMS Furious and two sisters. Furious, termed a “light cruiser,” displaced 20,000 tons, and was intended to carry two 18-inch guns; larger than any battleship gun at the time.
The experiment didn’t last long, as the Royal Navy had little need for another battle cruiser after Jutland. However, Furious provided a useful hull for testing another concept; a dedicated aircraft-carrying vessel that could launch and recover conventional aircraft. Furious underwent partial conversion during the war, and full conversion after. The first real aircraft carrier, she served with distinction in World War II, and set the terms for a revolution in naval warfare.
In the Pacific War, U.S. submarines ranged across Japan’s imperial conquests, eventually sinking the greater portion of the Japanese merchant marine, and a fair percentage of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The experience indicated two major problems with diesel-electric submarines, however. First, they lacked range, and consequently depended on bases and resupply ships for distant operations. Second, they were vulnerable to attack while resting on the surface.
The U.S. solution was nuclear propulsion; submarines that used a nuclear reactor for power did not need to surface, and could patrol for as long as their weapons and food lasted. The first U.S. nuclear submarine (the USS Nautilus) came about in large part because of the influence of Admiral Hyman Rickover. Nautilus demonstrated what a nuclear submarine could do, and profoundly influenced the development of the U.S. submarine force. She served until 1980, and today remains as a museum ship in Groton, Connecticut.
From the early eighteenth century, shipbuilders and inventors around the world began to experiment with steam-propelled ships. Usually driven by paddlewheels, these ships could operate in conditions that sailing vessels could not (primarily in becalmed or riverine contexts). The first steam-driven paddlewheel warships appeared in the early decades of the nineteenth century, but suffered from problems of equipment and weapon arrangement.
In the mid-1840s, Britain and France took this experiment to the next stage by dispensing with the paddlewheel in favor of the more efficient, more structurally sound propeller screw. Although both navies built several smaller ships, the first steam-driven, screw-propelled battleship to enter service was the French Napoleon, which was commissioned in 1852 and served in the Crimean War. Built of wood, Napoleon retained her sails and otherwise resembled a classic ship-of-the-line. Nonetheless, Napoleon lent its name to a class of ten wooden steam-screw battleships.
The construction of Napoleon did not mark the end of the Age of Sail; warships would continue to carry sails for another three decades. However, it did mark the beginning of the end. This shift would have wide-ranging effects on grand strategy, as the shift to coal meant that navies needed distant bases in order to support global operations.
Not every experimental ship works out. Because of their experimental nature, almost all such ships are superseded in short order by vessels that incorporate lessons learned. Napoleon was hopelessly outclassed within a decade; Dreadnought left service in twelve years; Nautilus compared poorly with her immediate successors; Furious was small relative to the big carriers of the interwar period; and Monitor sank in a storm. Nevertheless, each ship introduced critical new technologies and enabled practice, experimentation and refined design practices. Zumwalt has the potential for all of this, and will hopefully (given her cost) remain in service for quite some time.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
Image: Flickr/Naval Surface Warriors