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The New Navy - Further Construction

Rapid growth in overseas markets and a foreign policy aimed at US control of communications across the isthmus of Central America drove the country towards naval expansion. The implications of these changes for the conduct of war at sea were not lost on America's naval leadership. By the end of 1885, Navy Secretary William Whitney and his Congressional supporters had adopted a new strategy for the Navy: that the best defense is a good offense. In 1886, Congress approved construction of the battleships Texas and Maine.

It was during the administration of Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) that the navy's strategy and policy began to change. In his inaugural address, President Harrison called for the continued and rapid construction of modern warships, and the acquisition of bases to maintain the US fleet in foreign seas. Later he urged Congress to authorize construction of battleships, giving support to Secretary of the Navy B.F. Tracy's goal of making the U.S. fleet strong enough "to be able to divert an enemy's force from our coast by threatening his own, for a war, though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations." Secretary Tracy said in his annual report: "The country needs a Navy that will exempt it from war, but the only Navy that will accomplish this is a Navy that can wage war."

When the United States began to rebuild its Navy in the 1880's, it faced serious difficulties. The Nation had fallen behind in marine engineering, in naval architecture, and in ordnance. Because the Navy had built few ships in the previous decades, there had been no need for men skilled in naval design and construction. The United States did not have the facilities to build modern armored vessels, nor did the Navy or industry have the ability to design them. We had to import the technical knowledge, chiefly from England. In addition, the line officers had lost their professional competence because our naval ships had become obsolete. Therefore, the engineers and the line officers who were engaged in the design of new ships lacked experience.

To coordinate ship design and construction, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy, in 1889, set up the Board on Construction. Its membership varied, but always included the Chief of the Bureaus of Construction and Repair, Steam Engineering, Equipment, and Ordnance. The Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy headed the Bureau of Steam Engineering, while the Chief Constructor headed Construction and Repair. They were professional engineers and naval architects. Line officers usually were Chiefs of the Bureau of Equipment and the Bureau of Ordnance.

Under these conditions, mistakes were inevitable. But, by and large, the worst errors were caused by the imposition of the opinions of line officers on technical matters. The result can be seen in the Navy's first three battleships, one of which was the famous Oregon. The Bureau of Ordnance, headed by a line officer, proposed a turret and gun arrangement based on the hoped-for success of technical developments. When these did not materialize, the turrets had to be redesigned. As a result, when any of these ships swung its guns to deliver a broadside, it heeled over to such an extent that the armor belt on the side toward the enemy dipped below the waterline, giving no protection to the ship.

Another example of poor design occurred during the planning of the Kentucky class battleships, laid down in 1896. The main battery was to be two turrets with a pair of 13-inch guns, and two turrets with a pair of 8-inch guns. The Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance proposed that the 8-inch turrets be placed on top of and integral with the 13-inch turrets. The 8-inch turrets could, therefore, not rotate independently. Whatever the 13-inch guns aimed at, so did the 8-inch guns on the turret above. The Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance - a line officer - got his plan accepted over the strenuous objections of the Chief Constructor. Theodore Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was aware of the serious criticism of this design. Yet he also knew that the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance was a line officer of great prestige among his brother officers. This episode was an instance- not uncommon in the Navy- where officers with a reputation in one field are assumed to be expert in another.

The Bureau of Construction had not shown the prescience that was claimed for it in advance of execution. Ships were found deeper in the water than was desired; others were said to be top-heavy. A battleship constructed on plans said to have been surreptitiously obtained from a British firm at considerable cost had not the necessary structural strength from a lack of sufficient material, which seemed remiss, inasmuch as iron and steel were abundant and cheap. Upon other cruisers and battleships yet untried as of 1893, the gilded rays of hope and pride yet remained, with a certain amount of apprehension that all modifications in design may not prove to be improvements.

One retired US Rear Admiral wrote in 1893 that "There are some of our countrymen that in naval and in other matters set their hopes of success in closely following the foot- steps of the British ; as the sunflower turns its face to its god, morning, noon, and when he sets, so do they keep their faces reverently and hopefully turned to Britishers for personal and professional inspiration. They may be known by their mutton-chop whiskers and their British accent and dress more readily acquired than British ideas. They are oblivious to the fact that for half a century Great Britain and other European powers have adopted largely American ideas in naval construction and armaments."

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:40:43 ZULU