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The Ram: A 19th-Century Naval Warfare Dead End

CSS Virginia rams USS Cumberland

By Steven Wills

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

Most naval enthusiasts are familiar with the groundbreaking 19th century warship innovations that have influenced warship design down to the present day. The revolving turret, the iron and later steel hull, armor plate, the mine and the self-propelled torpedo and steam propulsion are all familiar signposts on the way to the fleets of the 20th and 21st century. One such innovation (or retrograde feature) in warship design did not survive to see duty beyond the first four years of the 20th century despite being a prominent feature on every major capital warship from the 1860’s to 1904. The Ram bow was once considered more lethal in ship-killing than either the gun or the nascent torpedo and mine. Thanks to its accidental success in the American Civil War and in the 1866 battle of Lissa between Austrian and Italian fleets, the ram acquired a fearsome reputation not seen since ancient times. Despite it supposed potential, the ram claimed many more victims in peacetime accident than it did in war. The British, French, and even the American navies built expensive rams that wasted valuable resources and never saw combat.

Incidents such as the sinking of the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia in 1862 and the spectacular loss of the Italian flagship Re D’ Italia when rammed by it’s Austrian opposite number Ferdinand Max in the 1866 Austro-Prussian (and Italian) war convinced many ship designers that the ram was now a preeminent weapon in war at sea. In the words of the late British naval designer D. K. Brown, the ram was the key piece of naval technology to overcome the new iron hull and armor in place of naval guns which often failed in this endeavor.

HMS Victoria sinks with propellers still spinning

The majority of capital ships after 1866 started to go to sea with rams, but their victims were nearly always friends and not the foes imagined. The British armored frigate HMS Iron Duke sank her sister ship HMS Vanguard in August 1875 as both ships blundered about in heavy fog. In May 1878, the German armored frigate SMS Konig Wilhelm rammed and sank the armored turret ship SMS Grosser Kurfurst in a maneuvering accident in clear weather. Finally, in a spectacular and terrible incident in 1893, the battleship HMS Camperdown rammed and sank the flagship of the British Mediterranean fleet HMS Victoria, who took 358 men and the commanding Admiral of the fleet Sir George Tryon to the bottom off Beirut, Lebanon.

While most rams were mere add-ons to capital ships, some were purpose built with no other combat function. HMS Polyphemus was built in the late 1870’s for over 170,000 pounds sterling. Although she was the first British warship to have an electric light and be painted a gr250px-PolyphemusShipay color for camouflage, Polyphemus was an expensive experiment soon overtaken by the technology of rapid fire guns. While the Polyphemus also had torpedoes as a weapon, the USS Katahdin,commissioned in 1893 at a cost of over $900,000 was a pure ram with only light weapons. Painted green to camouflage herself in coastal waters, Katahdin was a harbor defense weapon against invading enemy fleets seeking to shell U.S. cities.  Although briefly in commission for the Spanish American war, Katahdin saw no combat and little active service before being sunk as a target off the mouth of the Rappahannock river in 1909.

USS Katahdin

The ram is another example of a so-called “transformative” weapon that in reality was a retrograde feature in warship construction. The steady march of conventional weapon technology in the form of accurate, long range, director-fired guns and faster, longer-range torpedoes eventually overcame any potential held by the ram. Most importantly, the ram bow was a tactical misconception that was rarely tested in peace or evaluated in wartime use, but remained an integral and expensive element of warship design for nearly 50 years. In an ironic twist of fate, the first modern battleship without a ram bow, the famous HMS Dreadnought, actually rammed and sank a German U boat in March 1915. It was an even more bizarre event in that the commander of the rammed submarine was Kapitanleutant Otto Weddigen, who in 1914 helped to inaugurate the modern era of naval warfare by sinking 3 British cruisers by submarine torpedoes in the space of an hour.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus.”

Sea Control 28 (East Atlantic) – The F-35

seacontrolemblemFor the inaugural edition of Sea Control’s “East Atlantic” series, Alexander Clarke brings on Steve George, former engineer with the F-35 program and Royal Navy veteran to discuss the challenges and misconceptions of the F-35 program. Remember, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher Stream Radio. Leave a comment and five stars!

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 28 (East Atlantic) -The F-35

Tune in next week for our interview with Erik Prince!

Preparing for the RCN’s Future: Platform Growth and Naval Vessels

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) will begin replacing much of its fleet at the start of the next decade. To ensure that its fleet remains relevant over its thirty-plus years of service life, adequate platform growth potential must be factored into the design process of the new vessels.

The RCN has 15 surface combatants: three elderly Iroquois-class destroyers and 12 Halifax-class anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigates. The ships of the former class were all commissioned in 1972 and the first will not be replaced until 2020 at the earliest. The Halifax were commissioned between 1992 and 1996 and the last unit will remain in service until it is replaced in 2033. All replacement dates are based on current estimates and assume no delays – an unlikely assumption given Canada’s procurement practices and the intricacies of systems integration on a new hull – and assume, of course, that there will be no project cancellation. Regardless, even in a best case scenario the last Iroquois will have served for an astonishing forty-eight years, and the last Halifax for thirty-seven years.

How can platform growth be incorporated into the fifteen-ship Single Class Surface Combatant Project? To answer this question it is useful to look at Canada’s most recent naval combatant class, the Halifax-class frigate, for lessons. The Halifax is a highly advanced warship by any standard. It is, however, primed for a single task: anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The mission requirement that determined the design was ASW for the purpose of protecting convoys in the Atlantic Ocean in the event that NATO went to war with the Soviet Union. For that mission it carries an impressive set of sonar and large numbers of anti-submarine munitions

Today the RCN has a very different core mission requirement: expeditionary operations. For this type of mission, the Halifax bow gun is inadequate for naval gunfire support and cannot take advantage of a series of new long-range naval ammunition built for larger guns. This shortcoming is made more acute by the fact that a smaller system cannot simply be replaced by a larger one unless sufficient hull volume has been allocated in the design. A similar shortcoming is its air defense system. The Halifax-class has no vertical launch cell system (VLS). VLS is a launcher system that is built into the deck to allow rapid launch of munitions. Additionally, it makes more efficient use of deck space and the ships’ volume. The Halifax-class cannot be retrofitted with a VLS system as adequate platform growth was not designed to allow for it. Instead, it has two Mark 48 eight-cell launchers that can only launch the RIM-162 Extended Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM). As surface-to-air missiles go, this is a short-range system that allows the frigate only to protect itself.

A study of the Halifax-class frigate provides important lessons on why it is important to ‘design in’ platform growth on naval vessels – especially when they will be in service for many unpredictable decades. Perhaps the three-most important platform-growth requirements today are energy generation, deck space and internal volume, and VLS cells. Energy generation is important to ensure that the warship’s sensors, particularly its radar systems, can be replaced with more powerful, energy hungry sensors. Furthermore, it is quite likely that in the future naval vessels will be able to carry various types of direct-energy weapons (such as lasers) to deal with increasingly sophisticated and fast anti-ship weapon systems. To utilize such systems a warship must be able to generate sufficient electrical power.

A SM-3 anti-ballistic missile is launched from a vertical launch system (VLS) cell. To use this system Canada will have to purchase the longest VLS system.

Deck space, internal volume, and VLS cells are related platform growth priorities. As the example of the Halifax’s naval gun has made clear, if the RCN intends to at least retain the option of arming its vessels with long-range naval guns for littoral operations then it must at least ensure that sufficient deck space and internal volume is ‘designed in.’ Moreover, the flexibility VLS cells provide makes them a priority for all navies today. The American Mark 41 VLS system offers a system that comes in varying numbers of cells and varying cell length/depth. The latter is important as the choice of cell length/depth determines what munitions can be launched from it. For example, should Canada procure a warship with the longest VLS length/cell, and if it hadn’t ‘designed in’ a margin of growth for cell length below deck, then it will be unable to ever fit its vessels with the current crop of anti-ballistic missile defenses and land-attack cruise missiles. This reduces the mission flexibility of a warship class and reduces their effectiveness over their service life. To overcome this, longer VLS cells can be procured or at least factored into the design – ‘designed for but not with.’ In a similar vein, space and volume can be allocated for VLS systems that can be added in the future.

Given past experiences it is likely that Canada’s next-generation of naval surface combatant will serve many decades into the future. Given the increasing importance of littoral/coastal operations, climatic change in the Arctic, and the need to undertake expeditionary operations, it is paramount that any naval vessel be designed with sufficient platform growth in mind. By doing so, the RCN will be able to hedge against an unpredictable fiscal, geopolitical and environmental future.

Shahryar Pasandideh is a third year student studying international relations and Middle Eastern studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. He is interested in contemporary debates on grand strategy, maritime security, Sino-American and Sino-Indian strategic interaction, and the military balance in the Persian Gulf region.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and the news agencies and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada. This article is published for information purposes only and was re-posted with permission from the Atlantic Council of Canada from its original form. 

Confederate Aft End Was a Dead End

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

Looking for whalers - CSS Shenandoah under sail
Looking for whalers – CSS Shenandoah under sail

The history of the American Civil War has very little to say on the Confederate Navy. What it does say focuses on commerce raiding, mostly by the CSS Alabama, which is well-known enough to be in high school history texts. But others were out there, too, such as the CSS Shenandoah.

Shenandoah was most notable for raiding whalers in the Pacific for months after the war was over (the news travelled to them slowly), and its flag was thus the last to fly in the Confederacy’s name. But for our purposes here the ship’s propulsion, not its politics, are our concern.

As was common in the mid-19th century, Shenandoah had a hybrid sail/steam system. When winds were good, the crew hauled up sails, and when the wind ceased, they lit off the boiler. What made this ship unique was a retractable propeller that (theoretically, anyway) reduced drag and increased the ship’s speed while under sail.

CSS Shenandoah drydocked
CSS Shenandoah drydocked

Did it work any more effectively than opening (or was it closing?) the tailgate on a pickup truck helps fuel efficiency? Apparently sailors of the time thought it did. Whatever the answer, it soon became a moot point as sails disappeared entirely from merchant and military fleets around the world. The retractable propeller truly was a dead-end technology, designed to address what turned out to be only a transient problem. As other technologies and procedures developed, the propeller “hoist” became a solution without a problem to solve.

A note on sourcing: While I did find online references to the propeller hoist, this post is mostly based on my memory of “Last Flag Down,” an account of Shenandoah’s cruise by John Baldwin and Ron Powers – a book I cannot recommend highly enough. For a short description of the voyage, see the family history of the XO, Lt. Conway Whittle (near the bottom of the page).

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who never quite figured out the tailgate thing and ended up selling his pickup. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.