January 23, 2018

Links 2 - The MoD Civil Service

An excellent article on the (British) MoD Civil Service

This comes from The Thin Pinstriped Line, one of the best places I know of for getting a look inside the guts of running a military.

January 21, 2018

Basics of Naval Strategy

An understanding of the basics of naval strategy is vital to making sense of the logic behind the construction of the battleship, and also to understanding naval warfare today. Modern naval strategy began with Alfred Thayer Mahan's seminal book The Influence of Sea Power upon History. He outlined how control of the sea had granted Britain victory over her enemies during most of the 18th century, and theorized that a power which could control the sea would have outsize influence over events on land. Events since then have borne him out.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Even today, the sea remains the best way of moving large quantities of heavy objects about the globe. Over 90% of global trade goes by sea. Despite American airlift capabilities, any large-scale deployment of US troops would require equipment and supplies to be transported by sea. Two schools of thought have developed to deal with these basic facts: sea denial and sea control. Read more...

January 19, 2018

Why the Carriers Are Not Doomed Part 3

Last time, I discussed the threat from conventional cruise missiles. But the weapon most commonly touted as making carriers obsolete is the DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM). The theory is that due to its speed and capability to evade defenses, there’s no practical way to protect against it. As you might expect, the story is much more complicated and much more favorable to the carrier.

A DF-21D missile

The DF-21D first came to US attention in 2009, prompting concern in the navy and panic outside of it. Defense analysts and talking heads said that there was no defense against it. At the time, that was only partially true, and important context was left out. In certain circles, however, it was uncritically accepted and interpreted to mean that no defense against ASBMs was possible. One so-called defense expert even went to the point of claiming that no defense was possible against any weapon on a ballistic trajectory, including a Harpoon in pop-up mode.1 This is frankly absurd, as the same logic leads us to conclude that the game of baseball cannot be played. Read more...

January 17, 2018


In the late 1880s, the pieces came together to create a new type of ship that would dominate the seas for most of the next two decades. After 1906, these became known as pre-dreadnoughts. While all of the elements that made them up had been used on previous ships, the end result was to bring an end to the experimental ships and produce the largest fleets of armored capital ships ever seen.

HMS Resolution, of the Royal Sovereign class

As the 1880s drew to a close, Britain faced a serious challenge to her traditional naval dominance. For the previous two decades, the drain of fighting colonial wars had kept the Navy budget low, while other powers had built up their fleets. However, these wars had largely come to an end, and in 1889, the Naval Defence Act was passed, formally establishing that Britain would match the fleets of the next two greatest powers combined, and authorizing 10 battleships over the next four years.2


January 14, 2018


Stability is one of the most important factors to consider when designing a ship, but it’s often overlooked in popular references. The most famous example of poor stability3 is probably HMS Captain,4 but lack of stability has sunk other ships, such as during Typhoon Cobra. On a less dramatic level, the limiting factor in the installation of light AA batteries on many ships during WWII was stability, in the form of a need to limit topweight.

HMS Captain

There are three important points in defining a ship’s stability. The first, two, the centers of gravity (CG) and buoyancy (CB), are the points through which all of the forces of a given type can be assumed to act. Naively, we’d expect the ship to be stable if the CG is below the CB, so any roll would produce a righting arm. This is not the case.5 Instead, ships take advantage of the fact that their form near the waterline causes the CB to move to the side that is more deeply submerged, creating what is known as a righting arm (GZ) and pushing that side back up. In normal operations we can assume that the CB is essentially ‘hanging’ from a point, called the Metacenter (MC), making it easy to find how much the CB has moved at a given angle of heel.


January 12, 2018

Why the Carriers Are Not Doomed Part 2

Last time, I discussed the first problem in killing a carrier, that of finding it. That alone is a challenge, but the problems for the attacker aren’t over at that point.

USS Theodore Roosevelt

The second line of the defense is the proactive measures the US will take to reduce the threat facing the carrier group. The USN learned at Pearl Harbor that it is better to give than to receive. First, submarine-launched Tomahawks will attack the enemy’s key infrastructure. Command and control facilities, communications links, logistics depots and air and naval bases will be targeted, reducing the enemy’s ability to find, fix, and attack the carrier groups. Tomahawks from the carrier’s escorting destroyers and air strikes from the carrier’s own airplanes will take over as the CVBG6 closes with the enemy coast. If an attack is detected before missile launch, airplanes will be vectored out to meet it. During the Cold War, US doctrine was that fighters would deal with airplanes, and SAMs took over after missile launch. Making hard estimates of effectiveness of these measures is very difficult, but they will be very important in a real war. Read more...

January 10, 2018

Bringing Back the Battleships

Should we reactivate the battleships? That was a common question I got while tour-guiding, and I figured I should give a complete answer here.

Iowa moored in Los Angeles

In accordance with Betteridge’s Law of Headlines,7 my answer is no. Reactivating the battleships would be a waste of money and manpower. The military capability of the ships would be extremely low, and the cost would be excessive.


January 07, 2018


Traditionally, one of two reasons is given for the reactivation of the Iowas in the 1980s. Either they were intended to provide amphibious fire support or they were supposed to fight the Soviet Kirov class cruisers. Unfortunately, neither stands up to close scrutiny, and we have to look deeper for the logic behind the battleships being brought back into service. To do that, we must first turn to what systems were installed during the reactivation.

Iowa being towed out of mothballs, 1982

The most important of these was the BGM-109 Tomahawk, a long-range cruise missile that came in three varieties: nuclear land attack (TLAM-N), conventional land attack (TLAM-C) and anti-ship (TASM). It was originally developed in the 70s to exploit a loophole in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which restricted ballistic missiles but not cruise missiles, and then converted into conventional and anti-ship versions. Each ship received 8 quad Armored Box Launchers (ABLs), four between the two funnels and four around the aft main battery director.


January 05, 2018

Why the Carriers Are Not Doomed Part 1

Claims that US carriers are very vulnerable to missile attack, and will be sunk immediately in any upcoming war, are quite common. They’re also wrong. The carriers are surprisingly survivable, and the prowess of missiles is usually grossly exaggerated.

USS Nimitz, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt operating together, November 2017

The first line of defense is the fact that the sea is very big[Citation Needed] and ships are small and mobile. Obviously, improved radar and modern navigational systems have made it easier to find and track ships at sea since WWII. Clouds and darkness are no longer serious obstacles, and it’s harder (though not impossible) to mess up your navigation. But there are still problems. A typical radar system will tell you that there is something there, but it won’t tell you what it is. You can make guesses based on where contacts are, but a smart opponent will do all he can to frustrate this. Carrier groups, for instance, never operate in the “bullseye” formation made famous in photos, and often do their best to look like merchant traffic.8


January 03, 2018

A Spotter's Guide to Modern Warships

Over the 70 years since the end of WW2, the nomenclature of warships has become very confused. This is for several reasons. The demise of the treaty structure removed the legal restrictions preventing categories merging. The minimum size of ship required for effective operations grew, while at the same time the need for numbers held down sizes on the top end. Different countries adopted different naming schemes for political or historical reasons, and classifications evolved over time. I’ll do my best to explain all of this, but it is of necessity an imperfect science. This list skews a bit towards what you'd see on the oceans today, or at least since the 80s, but it should be helpful in understanding what was going on since the 60s, or even earlier in combination with the previous list.