Speaking of CDR Salamander, did you know he runs a podcast/online radio show? Every Sunday. And he almost always has some very remarkable guests. This week’s guest is Dr. Norman Friedman, probably the world’s best brain when it comes to the history of warship design.
Dr. Friedman also had a recent piece on what makes some warship classes a success and some a failure.
When it comes to warships, bigger is usually better, and the most successful vessels are often those that are adaptable to changing times and technologies.
What makes a warship excellent rather than merely serviceable? What constitutes a nautical turkey, or causes an ugly duckling of a ship to develop into a seagoing swan? If you visit Stockholm, you can see a classic turkey: the 17th-century capital ship Vasa, which rolled over and sank on her first voyage before even clearing harbor. She was later recovered and restored and is now on display in a museum. Since her loss, naval architects have largely learned to avoid disaster, but turkeydom is a lot more subtle. Good or bad really depends on point of view. Ships last a long time, sometimes 30 or even 50 years. But how well do they last?
Maybe the best criterion for judging ships is how well they survive in the face of changing circumstances—not just changes in technology but also the inevitable changes in the world. During the Cold War, it seemed that while technology changed, the global status quo was fixed; the world of, say, 1985 was recognizably that of 1955 or even 1950. Once the Cold War ended, all the pent-up pressure for change appeared to burst out. And the world of 2012 is not really the same as that of 2000; global threats have changed, as have naval missions.
There is a tradeoff between size and numbers of ships. There’s an old saying in the ship design business that the cheapest part of a ship is steel. That is, the marginal cost of adding size to a given ship is pretty small. And that’s true to a very great extent. Indeed, given a good architect, a larger ship may even be cheaper than a smaller ship. For instance, a shorter ship may need a more powerful powerplant than a longer ship to achieve the same speed. And power costs real money, compared to steel.
The problem is, given a larger ship, the various interests that advocate for features on a class of ship tend to incrementally add features as the size increases. That drives up the costs, driving down the unit numbers. Given a smaller number of ships, there’s an incentive to make each vessel as capable as possible, and thus add features, thus driving up costs, and reducing units that can be bought…
Balancing the size, sophistication, adaptability and longevity of a class of warship is a real challenge. Often, even in recent times, our Navy has been fantastically successful at this. The Spruance class comes to mind. Originally derided as underarmed ships of enormous size, compared the the small austere Forrest Sherman and FRAM classes they replaced, they proved to be excellent ASW platforms for Battle Group escort. They also formed the basis of the Kidd class of DDGs.* Perhaps even more importantly, the basic design was so sound it was adapted to become the Ticonderoga class Aegis cruisers, and formed the basis of the hugely successful DDG-51 Burke class of destroyers that form the backbone of the surface fleet today, and is still in production.
*Built originally for Iran, after the fall of the Shah, these four ships were commissioned in the US Navy.