Lessons of the Dreadnought


John J. McKeon is the author of Demented Choirs, a novel set in 1905 during the building of HMS Dreadnought, the first revolutionary weapons system of the 20th century. This is his first post for Defense Tech.When a nation has a big technological lead over its potential military rivals, how long can that lead be expected to last?The United States enjoys such an edge today, with no other nation either willing or able to compete in firepower, communications or mobility. Other nations, at other times, have occupied similarly advanced positions.Dreadnought pic.JPGHistory suggests these advantages dont last long, and pursuing them can lead to unexpected places. For example:It was in search of just such a long-lived war-fighting advantage that Great Britain set out in 1905 to build what was then the most extraordinary weapon in the world, the great battleship HMS Dreadnought.Britain built Dreadnought in secrecy and with unprecedented speed. The haste itself was a signal to Imperial Germany that His Majesty could build more and bigger ships, and build them faster, than the Kaiser. In addition, German warships had to traverse the Kiel canal to reach open water, and bigger ships, with deeper drafts, could not do so.If Germany wanted to keep pace, she would have to widen and deepen the canal, which would -- in theory -- make it cripplingly expensive to join in an arms race.Dreadnought was the first "all big gun" ship; carrying ten 12-inch guns mounted in five turrets of a new design. Two were "wing turrets" on either side, another innovation. Dreadnought's propulsion system was also novel, and required by the emphasis her designers placed on speed.Those designers forsook heavy iron plate armor, opting for lighter weight. "Speed is armor," said Admiral Jacky Fisher, then First Sea Lord and the driving force behind the modernization of the British navy. Dreadnought would simply outrun any other vessel it might encounter, and lob 850 pound shells from well out of the enemys firing range."Three 12-inch shells bursting on board every minute would be HELL!" Fisher declared.New generations of American naval vessels, like the Zumwalt-class destroyers, put considerable emphasis on assets like radar-invisibility rather than the old, Industrial Revolution mantra of bigger/faster. Moreover, naval designers these days are creating platforms intended to evolve with new technology, rather than merely freezing in place the advantages of the moment.Dreadnought gave its name to a whole class of ships, which soon included German vessels as well as British, Japanese and American. But Dreadnought itself was rapidly eclipsed. Within a decade after 1905, Britain had built more than 30 ships larger than Dreadnought, and Germany had built 28.By August 1914, when Europe came to the precipice of war and leaped off, Dreadnought was already a relic.-- John J. McKeon

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