Tag Archives: Naval History

Coal to Oil and the Great Green Fleet

HMS BARHAM, a QUEEN ELIZABETH class Battleship, one of the Royal Navy's first oil-powered ships
HMS Barhham,Queen Elizabeth-class battleship, one of the Royal Navy’s first oil-powered ships

It has been more than a month since the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have blocked U.S. Navy efforts to develop and use biofuels.  This passage of time means it might now be possible to make a less emotional and more measured comparison of the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” to the decision-making processes behind previous similar historic transitions in propulsion.

The stated goal of the Great Green Fleet is to fuel an entire Carrier Strike Group with “alternative sources of energy” by 2016 (the definition of which helpfully includes nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines).  Most of the controversy surrounding the project has been over the amount spent developing sources of biofuels ($170 million), a main focus of the Navy’s drive to find half its fuel from “alternative sources by 2020”.

Comparisons between the U.S.’s current naval situation and that of Great Britain a century ago may be so common now as to be cliche (a topic I’ve dabbled in myself on a few different occasions), but this potential change in the preferred source of propulsion for the surface fleet is reminiscent of the Royal Navy’s shift from coal to oil before the First World War.  Convinced that oil was necessary to make new ships that would outperform and outfight those of the Germans, Winston Churchill, civilian head of the Royal Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, created a commission led by then-former First Sea Lord Admiral Jackie Fisher with instructions to figure out how to implement the change: “You have got to find the oil; to show how it can be stored cheaply: how it can be purchased regularly & cheaply in peace, and with absolute certainty during war.”

Some of the factors used by the leaders of the U.S. Navy today in evaluating the fuel issue echo the way that it was framed by Churchill a century ago, with the performance implications of the fuel, costs, and the security of supply informing the decision-making process to different degrees.

Since the biofuels to be used by the Great Green Fleet are interchangeable with current oil-derived fuels, the actual performance benefits for the U.S. Navy are minimal, and the difference between old and new fuel sources ought to be transparent to the operator.  There were significant performance advantages associated with a switch from coal to oil by the Royal Navy, however.  While coal was less prone than oil to explosion if struck by enemy fire, this was greatly outweighed by oil’s much diminished labor requirements – no need for stokers to haul coal from storage spaces to the plant – and ease of refueling at sea.  On a pure performance comparison, oil-driven engines also generally allowed ships to go faster and further.

Although the cost of oil was not necessarily the biggest issue in debates over the switch from coal in the early twentieth century it has been the main item of contention surrounding the Great Green Fleet.  Biofuels for the Great Green Fleet have regularly been described as four times the cost of regular fuel.  The Secretary of the Navy has countered that the high costs associated with the initial investment will be worthwhile because the investment will help make alternative fuels “more commercially viable” and cheaper in the long run.  While biofuels are much more costly now, price volatility means that oil’s current price advantage is not always guaranteed.

In fact the vulnerability of the global oil supply is the primary issue both debates considered, although each set of decision-makers reached an opposite set of conclusions.  While the U.S. is not necessarily dependent on oil extracted in the Middle East, the volume of oil originating from major suppliers like Saudi Arabia has a significant impact on its price, which in turn affects the American economy and consumers (including the military).  In its public pronouncements on the Great Green Fleet, the U.S. Navy has made such a consideration clear, arguing that “the purpose of these energy goals is to improve our combat capability and to increase our energy security by addressing a significant military vulnerability:  dependence on foreign oil.”  “Market volatility” in its own right has been a significant Department of Defense cost,  with price increases alone accounting for a $19 billion bill in 2011.

Skeptics of the Royal Navy’s proposed switch to oil propulsion had serious reservations about its supply.  Wales was a rich source of the high-grade coal used by warships of that era, and the U.K. at the time had no domestic source of oil (Jackie Fisher famously stated that “Oil don’t grow in England.”).  Fortunately, oil exploration had just seriously begun in the Middle East, and Britain “solved” its oil supply problem by government investment in the new Anglo-Persian Oil Company and an agreement for a twenty year oil supply.  A revisionist assessment also puts the supply question on its head, holding that British leaders, fearful of labor unrest, felt Middle Eastern oil was a more secure commodity than coal taken out of the ground.

"Oil! Glorious, Oil! Hot, sweet crude in barrels!"
“Oil! Glorious, Oil! Hot, sweet crude in barrels!”

Regardless of why the decision to adopt oil propulsion was made, its implications (oil historian Daniel Yergin called it “Churchill’s great gamble”, pushing “for conversion to oil before the supply problem had been solved”) were significant, committing Britain to maintaining a secure supply line to the Middle Eastern oil fields in order to keep its military machine going.  This may not have necessarily been a major new commitment when Britain still maintained India and a variety of other Asian territories as part of its Empire, but it was a significant geopolitical decision, one mirrored decades later by the U.S. when President Carter outlined what has since been labeled as the Carter Doctrine, a policy of U.S. military commitment to the region that has been acted upon by each of his successors.  Carter stated in his 1980 State of the Union address that:

“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and any such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Ironically, the British shift to oil-powered ships had little to no impact on the fight at sea during the First World War.  In fact, the Royal Navy was faced with shortages caused by German U-Boat attacks on tankers, resulting in extended stays in port and speed limits on some ships.  To Winston Churchill, however, the tactical advantages of oil outweighed other considerations like the cost of oil and any potential supply vulnerabilities.  He felt that oil would help the Royal Navy win a war at sea with Germany and that “Mastery itself was the prize of the venture.”

The relevant question today is whether the strategic calculus has changed since that time.  To the Royal Navy a century ago, the risk of an uncertain supply of fuel was mitigated by the expectation of better fighting ships.  Does the current uncertainty associated with oil make it a vulnerability to the fleet, and can that vulnerability be managed or hedged against by biofuels or other energy sources?

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS Essex (LHD 2).  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

A Tale of Three Fires

USS Manley (DD 940)

On April 9, 1979 a fuel line ruptured in the boiler room aboard USS Manley (DD 940).  An officer standing nearby was soaked with fuel which then burst into flames.  LT Gilbert Johnson was burned over two thirds of his body as his polyester uniform melted to his skin and continued burning.  Eight other Sailors in the boiler room received only minor burns.  They were all wearing cotton, or cotton blend, uniforms.  Three weeks after the fire LT Johnson died of his burns.

During a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the uniform, Peter Brown, a professor of textiles and clothing at the University of Minnesota said that the polyester uniform would be suitable for normal activities, but that “It does melt.  It does ignite.  It does continue to burn.”  According to other depositions in the case the Navy certified the used of polyester uniforms in 1972 but never tested them for flammability.  Despite the testimony, there is no indication that the Navy took action against the wear of 100% polyester uniforms aboard ship following the death of LT Johnson.

USS Conyngham (DDG 17)

In May 1990, a predawn fire killed the operations officer and injured a dozen sailors aboard USS Conyngham (DDG 17).  The blaze forced the captain to evacuate the bridge and the combat information center while the crew battled the main engine-room fire and a series of secondary fires.

The fire erupted in the main boiler room at 5:35 a.m. as the 437-foot ship was sailing about 80 miles off the coast of North Carolina in what the Navy calls the Virginia Capes Operating Area, officials said.

“The fire spread to the combat information center spaces, which caused the captain to evacuate the combat information center and the bridge, temporarily leaving the ship without communications and dead in the water,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

The Conyngham’s skipper, Cmdr. W. R. Williams, reported that the main fire was extinguished within two hours but that the crew fought secondary blazes until noon.

USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41)

At 4 a.m. on October 5, 2010 a fire broke out in the deck department office aboard USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41).  The fire burned for over 90 minutes, cutting off access to repair locker 2 and requiring assistance from neighboring ships and the base fire department before being put out.  The fire was ultimately traced to the improper use and storage of linseed oil.  As part of the investigation, the Naval Safety Center recommended that the new Navy Working Uniform, a 50/50 cotton/nylon blend, not be used by fire fighters or first responders.  This recommendation was later modified to allow first responders to be in the NWU.

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In October 2012, the Navy conducted a seemingly unplanned and unrelated flammability test.  The test, now much talked about, found that the NWU was not flame resistant, and when set alight would “burn robustly until consumed”.

MI-6 originally designed the fabric of NWU's as a way to increase Soviet naval fatalities during peacetime.
MI-6 originally designed the fabric of NWUs as a way to assassinate Soviet naval leadership.

In subsequent media releases the Navy disclosed that the requirement for a flame retardant uniform aboard ship had been rescinded in 1996 and that the NWU met current requirements for shipboard use.  These comments are very similar to the Navy comments about the use of CNT uniforms aboard ship in 1979.  Despite the fire onboard Manley, the Navy continued to allow the wear of CNT uniforms aboard ship until after the attack on USS Stark (FFG 37) in 1987.  Corfam shoes and polyester uniforms were banned aboard ship following the attack and subsequent fires.

Now, these are three cases over almost forty years.  There have been at least 60 major fires aboard ships and submarines since 1979.  Fewer than two dozen Sailors were killed in those fires.  One could easily make the case that fire occurs so rarely that a fire retardant uniform is unnecessary.

Yet, take a look at the time of day and circumstances of the fires listed here.  Pre-dawn.  Fires occur to their convenience and not ours and marginal increased cost of a fire retardant should not be outweighed by peacetime statistics.  We fight like we train.

If we cannot equip our Sailors with a fire retardant or flame resistant uniform, at the very least the removal of a shipboard uniform that melts and burns until consumed should be an easy first step.  It was done 25 years ago, we should be able to do it today.

CAPT Junge is a Naval War College Professor and career surface warfare officer with afloat service in frigates, destroyers, and amphibious assault ships.  His afloat career culminated in command of USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41).  Ashore he has served as an officer recruiter and with four different Washington DC staffs.  A graduate of the US Naval Academy he also holds graduate degrees from the US Naval War College and The George Washington University.

You Sunk My…

I’m expecting a flood of Battleship-related posts in the near future with the U.S. opening this weekend. For instance, I’ve been promised a humorous take of this hard-hitting documentary over at USNI blog, so I’ll take a more straight-faced look at battleships.

 

As nukes are to the egos and deterrent calculus of nations today, so were battleships in the first half of the 20th Century. While the fact that today’s navies no longer possess battleships may be lost on this weekend’s moviegoers, what’s even more shocking is that after conducting extensive Wikipedia research, I uncovered no instances in which a battleship was sunk due to alien action.

 

Fear nothing?

This is an inexcusable error on the part of the filmmakers, but I thought our readers might nonetheless like to know the truth behind battleship sinkings. Below are the rough figures of the fates of post-Dreadnought battleships (excluding battlecruisers). Those not listed were scrapped, turned into a museum, taken to sea by Stephen Seagal, or commandeered by Cher (see photo above).

 

Doing some rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations, it looks like the number one cause of a sinking during a conflict (granted due primarily to the exceptional actions at Scapa Flow) was the hands of a ship’s own crew.

 

Sunk by Aircraft – 12 – 27%:

  • –        RN Conte di Cavour                                1940
  • –        HMS Prince of Wales                              1941
  • –        Marat                                                            1941
  • –        USS Arizona                                               1941
  • –        USS West Virginia                                   1941 (Salvaged and returned to service)
  • –        USS California                                          1941 (Salvaged and returned to service)
  • –        USS Oklahoma                                         1941
  • –        USS Utah:                                                   1941 (After conversion to an anti-aircraft training ship)
  • –        RN Roma                                                    1943
  • –        SMS Tirpitz                                                1944
  • –        IJN Musashi                                              1944
  • –        IJN Yamato                                               1945

Scuttled to Prevent Enemy Use – 15 – 33%:

  • –        Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya       1917
  • –        SMS Kaiser                                                 1919
  • –        SMS Prinzregent Luitpold                    1919
  • –        SMS Kaiserin                                             1919
  • –        SMS Friedrich der Grosse                      1919
  • –        SMS König Albert                                     1919
  • –        SMS König                                                  1919
  • –        SMS Großer Kurfürst                              1919
  • –        SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm                       1919
  • –        SMS Markgraf                                          1919
  • –        SMS Bayern                                               1919
  • –        SMS Bismarck                                          1941  (While under enemy fire – cause disputed)
  • –        Dunkerque                                                  1942
  • –        Strasbourg                                                 1942
  • –        Provence                                                     1942

Surface Fire or Surface Torpedoes – 4 – 9%:

  • –        SMS Szent István                                      1918
  • –        Bretagne                                                      1940
  • –        Fusō                                                              1944
  • –        Yamashiro                                                  1944

Torpedoed by Submarine – 2 – 4%:

  • –        SMS Szent István                                      1918 (h/t Chuck Hill)
  • –        HMS Royal Oak                                        1939
  • –        HMS Barham                                             1941

Sunk as Breakwater – 2 – 4%:

  • –        HMS Centurion                                        1944
  • –        Courbet                                                        1944

Sunk after Running Aground – 1 – 2%:

  • –        España                                                        1923

Sunk by Frogmen – 1 – 2%:

  • –        Viribus Unitis                                           1918

Sunk by Claimed Sabotage – 2 – 4%:

  • –        RN Leonardo da Vinci                          1916
  • –        Jaime I                                                        1937

Sunk by Mines – 2 – 4%:

  • –        HMS Audacious                                      1914
  • –        España                                                       1937

Sunk by Internal Explosion – 4 – 9%:

  • –        Imperatritsa Mariya                             1916
  • –        HMS Vanguard                                       1917
  • –        Kawachi                                                     1918
  • –        Mutsu                                                          1943

Sunk by Aliens – 0 – 0%

Scuttling in the Scapa: German battleship Bayern.

Sunk During Peacetime

Scuttled at Sea:

  • –        USS Pennsylvania                                 1948

Sunk after Running Aground

  • –        France                                                        1922

Sunk During Target Practice:

  • –        SMS Ostfriesland                                   1921
  • –        SMS Baden                                               1921
  • –        SMS Thüringen                                       1923
  • –        Aki                                                                1924
  • –        Satsuma                                                     1924
  • –        USS Washington                                    1924
  • –        HMS Monarch                                        1925
  • –        HMS Emperor of India                        1931

Sunk During Underwater Nuclear Test

  • –        Nagato                                                       1946
  • –        USS Arkansas                                         1946

Unknown Cause:

  • –        Novorossiysk                                          1955

Sunk due to Weather:

  • –        São Paulo                                                  1951