Lessons learned from an early age
Emerging technological horizons: lessons learned from an earlier age
Painting by CSS Virginie
Photograph of the historic center of the United States Navy
The National Defense Industrial Association created the Emerging Technologies Institute to help our nation’s leaders understand the importance of investing in key technologies that will allow us to prevail in any future battlefield.
As the previous columns have described, history offers notable examples of leaps in military technology that changed the nature of warfare. One of my favorites is the development of rock-solid warships during the Civil War, a story that provides lessons directly applicable to our modern age.
In April 1861, after Virginia seceded from the Union, the US Navy evacuated the Norfolk Navy Yard before the ships fell into Confederate hands. The steam frigate USS Merrimack was in the yard under repair after serving as the flagship of the Pacific Squadron and could not be sailed. Rather than let the ship fall into Confederate hands, the Navy decided to set it on fire. The Merrimack was also scuttled, so the masts ignited but the hull sank before it could burn. When the Confederates took Norfolk, they gave Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke the task of rebuilding the remains of the Merrimack not like a sailboat, but like a rock-solid ram. Brooke, 35, was a great choice; the graduate of the Naval Academy was an accomplished scientist and engineer who had made important discoveries on the ocean floor that ultimately enabled the laying of the first submarine telegraph cables.
First lesson: the military services must have the best and the brightest technical minds available. The quality of our scientific workforce is important.
It’s also worth taking a step back and wondering why the Merrimack and similar steamers of its day still had masts with sails in the first place? The answer is that early steam engines were unreliable, difficult to maintain, and depended on an unreliable fuel supply. In fact, in the British Navy it took the advocacy of one of the greatest sailing captains of the Napoleonic era, Lord Cochrane, to introduce steam power against the objections of many naval rulers of his day. Second lesson: sometimes it takes a strong advocate to introduce a new technology; even better if this advocate established his credibility with the previous generation of technology. Modern examples of this include General Bernard Schriever and the Air Force’s ICBM fleet, and General John Jumper who oversaw the addition of weapons to unmanned aircraft.
Return to Merrimack. In my mind, I always imagine the Confederate forces entering the shipyard and realizing that they could repair the damage done to the Merrimack, including masts and yards, and add it to their nascent fleet. Someone – maybe John Mercer Brooke himself – could have said something like, “Excuse me, he has an engine, why do we even need the sails?” And the ironclad was born.
But the key point is every now and then a technological epiphany, a realization that an old way of doing something that made sense is no longer the best solution.
A modern example is the growing acceptance that large, expensive space systems are vulnerable and can be replaced by smaller, less expensive, proliferated spacecraft. Arguably, such epiphanies tend to come from individuals who see a problem with fresh eyes and are willing to question established wisdom. This is why, for example, the Space Development Agency was created to deliver defense satellites outside of established pipelines.
This leads to the third lesson: asking why we are doing things a certain way, especially for defense technologies that have advanced since the guidelines were first established.
The rest of Merrimack’s story is well known. The Confederate Navy successfully rebuilt the ship as the CSS battleship Virginia, with a set of cannons jutting out of small ports into an impenetrable hull mounting a forward-facing, anachronistic ram. But note that in rebuilding the Merrimack, the Confederate Navy undertook a rigorous research and development effort, for example experimenting with different thicknesses of iron to determine the best design.
The results were devastatingly effective; the Virginia was unleashed against the Union blockade fleet off Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862.
In a matter of hours, he had defeated the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress, and would have sunk the USS Minnesota if its captain had not run aground the Minnesota out of range of arms of the Virginia.
Lesson Four: It is important to follow the steps of research and engineering, including development testing and evaluation.
As a result of the construction of the first battleships, naval technology changed forever. In total, the Union and Confederate navies built around 70 battleships, and the concept quickly spread to navies around the world. Barely 16 months after the end of the Civil War, the Battle of Lissa between Italy and Austria numbered no less than 13 battleships.
Leading up to lesson five: Military technology spreads rapidly. Other nations will watch what we do and how we do it, and adopt it quickly.
For me, the most amazing lesson from CSS Virginia is that it was technologically superior to anything that was afloat in a single day. On her second day of combat, Virginia was confronted with the Union’s more advanced USS Monitor, and the infamous Battleship Battle ensued. The history of Monitor development is fascinating in itself. Thus proving lesson six: technological superiority can be fleeting and we can never rest on our laurels.
Dr. Mark J. Lewis is Executive Director of the Emerging Technologies Institute at NDIA, a non-partisan think tank focused on technologies essential to the future of national defense.
The subjects: Department of Defense