February 23, 2018

Strike Warfare

I’m venturing outside of my usual remit today, and discussing an issue that’s about 90% air warfare, although it obviously applies to naval aviation, too.

F/A-18F Super Hornet loaded for a strike mission

We can broadly divide combat aircraft operation into two categories, which I’ll call strike and responsive. Obviously, there’s a continuum between the two extremes, but this dichotomy will help make clear something not commonly understood outside of the military world.

Strike operations are missions launched against (usually) fixed targets, probably at the direction of high-level commanders. Let’s work an example:


February 22, 2018

Happy 75th, Iowa!

75 years ago today, the USS Iowa was commissioned for the first time at the New York Navy Yard.

The original bell is also scheduled to arrive today from Des Moines, where it's been on display for the past 25 years. I wish I could be there for the celebration on Saturday.

February 21, 2018

Propulsion Part 1

Steam first went to sea in the early years of the 19th century. At first, it was used by navies primarily to tow ships in and out of harbor, being immune to wind and resistant to tides. Later, steamships were used extensively for minor roles, such as dispatch boats. In the 1830s, the first steam warships were built, such as HMS Gorgon. However, the use of paddle wheels meant that they could only mount a limited broadside armament, so only small ships received them. Larger ships retained sail until the advent of the screw propeller. Besides clean broadsides, screws also allowed the engines to be entirely below the waterline, where they were protected from enemy fire.

HMS Gorgon

The British and French began modifying existing warships, both frigates and line-of-battle ships, in the mid-1840s. The resulting "blockships" were intended to use their steam only sparingly, as the inefficient steam engines gave them only limited endurance. As the engines improved, so did the importance of steam in ship design, and by the time HMS Warrior was designed, her steam plant was as important as her sails. But before we examine them it more detail, we need to look at the basics of a steam plant.


February 18, 2018

One Year

One year ago today, I wrote the first post in what is now Naval Gazing. IrishDude asked in one of the OTs about people's hobbies, and I responded by talking about my work as a tour guide on the Iowa. The discussion continued, and thanks to David Friedman's questions about the class Iowa vs Yamato duel, I ended up writing out a text version of my fire control spiel. That got enough of a reaction that I kept writing, and have continued to do so since.

So I guess I have to say thanks. Thanks to IrishDude for asking the initial question, and to David Friedman for the follow-up. Thanks to everyone else for encouraging me to keep writing, particularly in the times when I wasn't getting a lot of comments and have felt like giving up. (I've mostly learned that I usually don't get a lot of comments when I've done a good job of explaining my point and so nobody has questions, but there are still days when I do wonder where everybody is.) And thanks to those who provided technical comments and pushed me to raise my game. Thanks to Scott Alexander for putting up with me filling his Open Threads with battleships. Thanks to Said Achmiz for hosting me, and dndnrsn for proofreading my columns here.

And thank you for reading. It's been an interesting year, and I'm certainly in a very different place than I was when this started. Naval Gazing has largely filled the hole left by the Iowa when I moved to Oklahoma, and I hope that I've made your lives more interesting over the past year, too. I plan to continue to do so for the next one.

February 18, 2018


I've referenced HMS Dreadnought many times here, as befits one of the most influential warships of the 20th century. However, I've never told the story of her origin in one place, bringing together the many threads of development that went into her design.

HMS Dreadnought

Dreadnought was in many ways the natural result of improvements in the technology of warships, most notably gunnery and propulsion. Gun ranges were increasing thanks to the work of men like Percy Scott, and the torpedo had become a major threat at close range. This greatly reduced the effectiveness of the 6" batteries of the pre-dreadnoughts. Longer ranges limited rate of fire to allow for spotting, and the steeply-falling 6" shells had much smaller danger spaces than the 12". At the same time, improved armor meant that it was now possible to provide adequate protection from the 6" across much of the ship's sides. Read more...

February 16, 2018


I've been asked several times about classes. A class of ships is a group of ships all built to the same set of blueprints, at least in theory. As with most naval matters, things are more complicated. In some cases, members of a class are essentially identical, while in others, they're totally different.

Iowa, New Jersey and Missouri as completed

We'll start with the Iowas. All four ships were built to fairly similar plans. The biggest structural differences are Iowa's three-level conning tower, intended to house an admiral and his staff in battle,1 and the heavier armored bulkheads on the ends of the citadel in Wisconsin and Missouri. The most obvious differences were in the bridgework. Iowa commissioned with an open bridge around the front of the conning tower, while New Jersey entered service with a circular enclosed bridge wrapped around the front of the conning tower. Missouri and Wisconsin had a square bridge, and Iowa and New Jersey both received similar structures during their refits.


February 14, 2018

Amphibious Warfare Part 4

The second half of the second world war saw the greatest amphibious operations the world has ever seen, and probably ever will see. The resulting battles saw Allied troops entering Germany and gained the bases from which the B-29s hammered Japan.

Troops wade ashore at Tinian

After Tarawa, the US continued its drive across the Pacific, making several landings in the Marshall Islands to gain fleet bases for the drive to Tokyo. The next step was the landings on Saipan in the Marianas. This was fiercely contested by the Japanese on both land and sea, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea delayed the follow-on landings on Guam for a month. Tinian was invaded by the same forces that had taken Saipan, after the most extensive pre-invasion bombardment in history. Engineers rapidly followed the troops ashore to convert all three islands into giant airfields for the bombardment of Japan.


February 11, 2018

Amphibious Warfare Part 3

Tarawa, one of the Gilbert Islands, was targeted by the US as the first stepping stone in the drive across the central Pacific that had been planned since just after WWI. It marked a new kind of amphibious operation for the Americans, landing on a small atoll into the teeth of Japanese defenses, and far from land-based air support. The assault on Tarawa, and the simultaneous attack on nearby Makin,2 involved approximately 200 ships, 27,600 assault troops, 7,600 garrison troops, 6,000 vehicles and 117,000 tons of cargo.

Bodies on the beach, November 22nd 1943

The troops who landed on Betito Island, the fleck of Tarawa with the all-important airfield, belonged mostly to the 2nd Marine Division, staged out of New Zealand. They were carried to their target by the Southern Attack Force under Rear Admiral Harry W Hill. This force of 16 transports, 3 battleships, 5 cruisers, 5 escort carriers, 21 destroyers, 2 minesweepers, 1 LSD and 3 LSTs began landing operations early on the 20th of November, 1943.


February 09, 2018

Why Military Acquisition is So Hard

The military procurement process is famously bad, and it’s easy to come up with stories of them overpaying for whatever the item of the day is. I’ll be the first to admit that the DoD has serious issues, and that the system is far from perfect. But the military is also a very demanding customer. If any piece of software on your computer crashes, the consequences are likely to be fairly minimal. If a piece of military software crashes at the wrong time, people are likely to die. Here’s a tale of one tiny piece of the development of some of that software. Everything included is true, although some details have been obfuscated.

It was decided that a Large Military Airplane (LMA) needed a moving map. After some analysis, it was decided to develop it from the moving map software already in use on a Small Military Airplane (SMA). Everyone involved thought the software was fairly close to the requirements, and merrily set to work. Read more...

February 07, 2018

Amphibious Warfare Part 2

The modern era of amphibious operations is usually identified to have begun with the invasion of Gallipoli during WWI. The Allies were attempting to open a sea route to Russia though the Turkish Straits between the Mediterranean and Black seas. Their initial naval assault had failed badly,3 so a plan was made to land troops to silence the guns protecting the strait.

Troops unloading from River Clyde at Gallipoli

Unfortunately, the allies did almost everything wrong. The plan and equipment had to be improvised in the month between the decision to go ashore and the actual landing in April of 1915. No serious planning had been made for large-scale amphibious operations before the war, and the five divisions assembled,4 despite representing some of the best troops available, were insufficient for the job. Like so many invasions before, this one was made in boats rowed ashore. The only specialized landing ship, River Clyde, was a converted collier intentionally grounded near Cape Hellas.5 The Ottomans near the beach were insufficient to throw back the landing force, but they inflicted savage casualties due to the lack of fire support and the general chaos. The commanders had not given sufficient emphasis to the need to move inland and the allied advance, like that of the Persians millennia before, bogged down, giving the Turks time to respond. Read more...