The text of a talk given to the World Ship Society Gloucester Branch on Monday 12 October 2015.
When I realised during September this year that I would need to fill a gap in the programme of meetings, it just so happened that I had been given an article from the Daily Telegraph of 31 August 2015 about a design concept called Dreadnought 2050. This was put together by a team of naval architects and engineers asked by the Royal Navy and Ministry of Defence to envisage how a future British warship might look. The simple answer is like a James Bond villain’s yacht – but just like the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought of 1906, all the features of Dreadnought 2050 follow function according to expected requirements and available technology. Let’s take a closer look:
The first thing that you will notice is the trimaran format: evaluated between 1998 and 2005 by the Royal Navy’s Research Vessel Triton which, since 2007 has been an Australian Customs Service patrol boat. Compared to a monohull warship, a trimaran has the advantage of a reduced radar signature and less drag when moving at speed, as well as increased stability and survivability, the option of a wide upper deck and the possibility of modular building at smaller shipyards. In this artist’s impression too, the rear door has hinged upwards to reveal a moon pool, or floodable stern dock, which could deploy amphibious vehicles or even launch mine hunting robots. Lowering the buoyancy of Dreadnought 2050 and partly submerging the ship could also make it less visible from a distance when static.
Above the moon pool is a relatively small flight deck and hangar for vertical take off drones while a tethered quadricopter is used instead of a mast to extend the range of the ship’s sensors and electronic communications. Hypersonic missiles and possibly lasers will be fitted to the beam of the ship to defend against incoming missiles and aircraft.
In fact the US Navy tested a 30 kilowatt laser system aboard the USS Ponce in 2014. Although this cannot be used as an anti personnel weapon under the Geneva Convention it has been used to destroy small boats and drone aircraft and an energy weapon will never run out of ammunition. However, it might be possible for future warships to keep on making new drones and other equipment using 3D printing.
At the bow of the vessel will be an electromagnetic railgun capable of firing projectiles 125 miles while forward in the trimaran outriggers will be tubes for supercavitating 300 knot torpedoes. The operations room will use a holographic command table to interpret data and will be operated by six people rather than 25. Similarly Dreadnought 2050 will require a crew of less than 100 within its 509 feet long plastic and graphene composite hull and travel at up to 50 knots courtesy of water jets powered by nuclear fission or even fusion energy if suitable thermonuclear propulsion systems are available. It is even suggested that technology in 35 years could make the hull transparent to help the crew conduct close in battles. Crazy? Well, 35 years ago nobody had mobile phones and now look at us! But what capabilities does the design of Dreadnought 2050 give the ship, and how have needs changed since Her Majesty and her 20th Century ancestors last owned vessels of the same name?
Earlier I mentioned Dreadnought 2050 launching amphibious vehicles from its moon pool, and one of the earliest reasons for building ships was to project power. Power could just be the technical ability of one group of people to travel across water when another could not, or again it could be represented by a longship full of marauding Vikings, a mechanised army landing on an enemy coast, or Captain Cook arriving on a Pacific island whose people had never seen a vessel bigger than a dugout canoe, let alone a pale skinned Englishman. And just as a flag can be planted on a foreign beach and an empire founded, so a ship can bring emergency supplies, weapons and equipment and evacuate refugees in a way that an intercontinental missile cannot.
A warship must be able to defend itself – either with missiles and lasers as on Dreadnought 2050 or with systems like the General Dynamics Goalkeeper rapid fire gun seen here – and attack enemy assets while occupying a place in or on the sea, moving as needed and, most importantly, moving with the lowest profile as a conflict develops. As we have already seen on Dreadnought 2050, offensive armament includes an electromagnetic gun, advanced torpedoes and uninhabited aerial vehicles. The vessel also has the ability to remotely receive commands, transmit information, sense its environment and interpret information received.
If built, Dreadnought 2050 will be able to project British power around the globe only limited by the endurance of its small crew. Undoubtedly it will not be cheap, but as well as undertaking humanitarian missions it will have the ability to deal not only with the threat of nation states, their armies, navies and air forces but with the most modern type of asymmetric warfare against less formally organised armed insurgent groups.
How different from the World into which the original HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906. King Edward VII was ruler of one quarter of the Earth’s surface and inevitably had an interest in the seas that connected his possessions. A young Winston Churchill summed up the spirit of the British Empire by saying
“To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil..What more beautiful idea or more valuable reward can inspire human effort?”
“Dreadnought eclipsed the warships of every major Naval Power when she appeared. Launched in 1906, she was not only the largest and most powerfully armed British battleship of her day, but the first to have steam turbines. She was 526 feet long with a beam of 82 feet and displaced 17 900 tons.”
The main armament of HMS Dreadnought was ten 12 inch guns. No previous battleship had previously carried more than four 12 inch guns. Secondary armament included twenty four 12 pounder guns around a hull that boasted 11 inch thick armour and the 23 500 horsepower of her turbines – or more than seven Deltic locomotives if you are my age – gave HMS Dreadnought a top speed of 21 ½ knots.
Of course, HMS Dreadnought was itself built on earlier innovation. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the steam engine – as well as the Royal Navy of Lord Nelson – Britain regained the technological upper hand at sea from France in 1860 with HMS Warrior – the first iron hulled armour plated steam driven ocean going warship.
Then, from 1873, HMS Devastation – as featured on the England’s Glory match box – became the first ocean going capital warship to dispense with sails for propulsion and to have its main armament in turrets on top of the hull rather than within it. During its service life up to 1908, HMS Devastation was also upgraded from muzzle to breech loading canon and fitted with triple expansion reciprocating steam engines. As built, HMS Devastation had an installed horsepower of 5 600 and was 285 feet long.
Back aboard HMS Dreadnought meanwhile, although masts remained for flag signalling and a crow’s nest, the ship’s centre of gravity was now lower – thanks to the fuel bunkers for her turbines – and allowed the installation of 12” guns firing explosive shells rather than cannon balls from fore and aft rotating turrets on the deck. HMS Dreadnought was also armed with torpedoes – and built in the epoch of radio, and was so able to receive and transmit messages by this means as well as by flags, semaphore and signalling lamps.
However, although the Wright Brothers had flown their first aeroplane in 1903 and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was to begin airship passenger flights in 1908, the first aircraft was not to fly from a Royal Navy ship until 1912. The Edwardian period was therefore one of torpedo boats ranged against torpedo boat destroyers, cruisers scouting ahead of grand fleets and battleships preparing to take on battleships. Similarly, before the advent of radar and sonar, the best environmental sensor was the mark one human eyeball.
Indeed, the development of HMS Dreadnought was as much geopolitical as technical and the hand of the Royal Navy was forced by the outcome of the May 1905 Battle of Tsushima between the ironclad fleets of the empires of Russia and Japan. The Japanese victory was attributed to their navy’s superior training, experience and technology – especially as their more modern range finders were effective at 6 000 yards compared to the Russian instruments which were limited to 4 000 yards. In this picture, vital equipment having been protected by sailor’s hammocks, Admiral Togo is raising his famous Z flag to the Japanese fleet which conveys the message “The Empire’s fate depends on the result of this battle, let every man do his utmost duty” – an echo of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar a century earlier.
Japanese high explosive shells also set fire to low grade coal stored on the decks of the Russian warships – such as the cruiser Aurora seen here. This was present because the Russian fleet had been forced to buy low calorific fuel at sea en route from the Baltic via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. In turn, these high seas coalings on such a long journey were necessary because the Russian fleet had been banned from both the Suez Canal and British ports after it had fired on British trawlers in the North Sea – having mistaken them for Japanese torpedo boats.
In a wider context, the defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 weakened the prestige of the Romanov dynasty and the incompetence of the Russian Navy emboldened the Central Powers in their brush-fire conflict with Russia in the Balkans. It also marked the first defeat of a European power by an Asian nation in the 20th Century and gave Japan the confidence to expand its influence in the Pacific. In turn the Royal Navy realised the need for superior battleships such as HMS Dreadnought and so began a naval arms race with Germany – led by Kaiser Wilhelm II – which would ultimately lead to the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.
Although designed to fight other large surface vessels, HMS Dreadnought’s only victory was becoming the first battleship to sink a submarine – by ramming U-29 as it surfaced on 18 March 1915. U-29’s Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen – who had received the Iron Cross for sinking HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy – perished along with his shipmates but was immortalised in a German postcard.
HMS Dreadnought even missed the Battle of Jutland due to being refitted and was finally scrapped at Inverkeithing in 1923. One vessel that did take part in arguably the greatest sea clash since Trafalgar though was the Grand Old Lady of the British Fleet – HMS Warspite. Completed at Devonport in 1915, HMS Warspite – seen here – was the first British battleship to mount 15” guns and the first to completely rely on oil as a fuel. One of five Queen Elizabeth class battleships built, she was heavily re-armoured and fitted with increased anti-aircraft armament in the 1930s and played a key role in the Second World War.
The mention of oil and aircraft bring us toward the end of the British battleship saga. Although the British Isles was and is blessed with huge reserves of coal – and high calorific value Welsh steam coal was once prized around the World for ships and locomotives alike – solid fuel is still bulkier than oil of equal energy and more awkward to handle. Coaling a large warship meant more unproductive and vulnerable time in port than if oil was being pumped on board and the provision of stokers to shovel coal into furnaces added to a ship’s complement. On the other hand, until the North Sea boom of the 1960s, oil was not to be found in Britain, making the Royal Navy and other fleets dependent on a fuel mainly found in politically unstable parts of the World.
The move from coal to oil at sea also coincided with an increased worldwide demand for liquid fuel for motor vehicles and aircraft. In the 1930s, industrialised Japan lacked coal, oil and rubber but its increasingly militaristic government looked jealously at nearby nations that possessed these materials. On 14 August 1937 Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers – like the one represented in this Jet Age reserve collection model- made the first transoceanic bombing raid against China. Then, on 10 December 1941, more “Nells” along with more advanced Mitsubishi aircraft sunk the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales – the first time that free moving warships had been sunk by aircraft.
In fact Repulse and Prince of Wales had originally been travelling to Malaya with the aircraft carrier Indomitable but this had been left behind as it had run aground – denying the two battleships vital air cover. Later actions across the Pacific and other theatres of the Second World War would see carrier borne aircraft used as flying artillery against enemy aircraft carriers and other capital ships. Similarly, as actions at Taranto and Pear Harbor revealed, battleships were vulnerable to airborne torpedo and bomb attack when stationary in port.
In the same way, explosive destruction could approach a battleship from below. As well as the threat from conventional submarines – such as U47 which sunk HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in 1939 – both the British and Italian navies attacked each other’s vessels with frogmen riding modified torpedoes while Royal Navy midget submarines – as seen here – badly damaged the German battleship Tirpitz with explosive charges dropped under her keel.
Perhaps some of the most enduring images of World War II at sea were thus of aircraft – like this Short Sunderland flying boat – attacking U-boats. Rather than just being armoured containers floating between the sky and the deep and thus vulnerable to attack from either direction while flinging out explosive shells, the new capital ships would either use aircraft as long range artillery or hide in the abyss ready to pounce.
From the 1950s too, powerful and capable helicopters entered the naval mix. Faster than a landing craft and more accurate than a glider or parachute in the projection of troops and equipment, helicopters like these Westland Wessex based on HMS Bulwark could also be adapted for airborne early warning duties as well as the search for and destruction of enemy submarines. More modern attack helicopters can even do the job once assigned to fixed wing aircraft like the Fairey Firefly.
Given these threats, perhaps the only remaining use for the battleships that evolved from HMS Dreadnought in 1906 is as a specialist tool of shock and awe. A prime example is the USS Missouri – commissioned in 1944 and the scene of Japan’s surrender in 1945 but still bringing its big guns to bear along with a stock of cruise missiles during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. However, even Mighty Mo left US Navy charge to become a museum ship in 1995 and perhaps only a nation as rich as the USA could have afforded such a luxury for so long.
In the more impecunious Royal Navy, the Landing Platform Dock ships Fearless and Intrepid made a closer link to the Dreadnought 2050 concept that we saw at the start of this presentation. In service from the 1960s to the early 21st Century, they carried defensive guns and missiles and their offensive capability was vested in helicopters and the amphibious forces launched from their stern docks. Although smaller than an aircraft carrier, they had the resources to command and control a crisis situation, take on and feed extracted civilians and in happier times fly the flag for Britain round the World.
Interestingly, for all their Swiss Army knife ability to do most jobs that power-projecting warships could, Fearless and Intrepid were the last Royal Navy vessels to be powered by oil fired steam. Diesel and gas turbine power now rule above the waves but in 1963 Britain’s silent service acquired its first true submersible. The new HMS Dreadnought – pennant number S101 – was Britain’s first nuclear submarine and helped restore the pride of a nation humiliated after the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Had it not been for the intervention of the superpowers – America taking an anti-colonialist stance and Egypt’s Nasser being a client of the USSR – Britain, France and Israel might well have held Arab nationalism in check and retaken the Suez Canal but as it was Britain, still recovering from the trauma of the Second World War, had to reassess its future geopolitical influence.
However, in 1957, the Royal Air Force acquired its first Avro Vulcan jet bombers which could deliver a hydrogen bomb developed independently of the United States. By the mid 1960s the Vulcan’s deterrent capability had also been enhanced by the addition of the Blue Steel stand-off missile but by this time too Soviet fighter and missile defences had also eroded the ability of a large subsonic bomber to approach its target. In the same way, long concrete runways on large airbases were vulnerable to a first strike by Russian missiles.
Although an Avro Vulcan will always attract a crowd in the way that perhaps no submarine can, no jet bomber can hide in the depths of the ocean and pop up to sink ships or launch missiles of its own. And no diesel electric submarine will ever match the endurance of a silent nuclear boat which also makes it ideal for hunting and killing other submarines. In fact with its unlimited fuel, water and oxygen supplies, the only limit to a nuclear submersible patrol is the food supply for the crew.
In fact the Royal Navy had been researching ideas for nuclear submarine propulsion since 1946 but American co-operation was only forthcoming under the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958. By this time the USS Nautilus – seen here – had become the World’s first nuclear submarine in 1955 and thanks to the efforts of The First Sea Lord Admiral The Earl Mountbatten of Burma a fifth generation pressurized water reactor from a Skipjack Class submarine and its associated machinery was obtained for Britain’s first Ship Submersible Nuclear, or SSN.
With influence from the American Electric Boat Company, the hull and combat systems of the nascent HMS Dreadnought were of British design and after laying down on 12 June 1959 at the Vickers Armstrong yard in Barrow in Furness the vessel was launched by HM The Queen on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1960. The first dive, in Ramsden Dock, was made on 10 January 1963 with commissioning on 17 April 1963.
During Dreadnought ’s construction, Rolls Royce in collaboration with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at the Admiralty Research Station, HMS Vulcan, at Dounreay developed a completely new British nuclear propulsion system. On 31 August 1960, the UK’s second nuclear-powered submarine was ordered from Vickers Armstrong and fitted with Rolls Royce’s PWR1 nuclear plant, making HMS Valiant the first all-British nuclear submarine. On 19 September 1967 meanwhile HMS Dreadnought left Rosyth for Singapore. The round trip finished as 4,640 miles surfaced and 26,545 miles submerged. On 3 March 1971 HMS Dreadnought also became the first British submarine to surface at the North Pole.
Having deployed to the Falkland Islands in 1977, HMS Dreadnought was decommissioned in 1980 and with her nuclear fuel removed she remains in floating storage at Rosyth. However, campaigners in Barrow hope that she will come home one day as a museum piece.
Meanwhile, following the success of Her Majesty’s Submersibles Dreadnought and Valiant, construction of four Polaris armed Resolution class nuclear submarines began at Barrow in 1964 with the Ships Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) patrolling the seas from 1968 to 1996. Having taken over Britain’s nuclear deterrent from the Royal Air Force, the baton was then passed on to the current fleet of Trident submarines.
Since 1906 Britain has won two World Wars but lost an Empire. Since 1963 Britain has joined the European Union and, with its commitments to foreign aid, health and social security, handed over the role of the World policeman to the United States: only for that role to be challenged in turn by China and a Russia resurgent after the fall of Communism 25 years ago. Where will we be in 2050? What will the World be like and how will we respond to the changes and challenges we will face? Who can say. But perhaps if we can still match the ingenuity of our ship building forbears with the courage of those fought or just waited to fight for our freedoms then we too can look forward and dread nought.