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Survey Results: What’s the Greatest Naval Innovation and Why?

USNI News recently asked its readers to weigh in on the question, “What is the greatest innovation in naval technology and why?More than 160 readers responded and with nearly 3,000 votes and the results are in.

Aircraft from the Sea

Aircraft and their carriers like the USS Essex (CV-9), seen here in 1945, were voted the greatest naval innovation ever by readers of USNI news. Naval Institute Photo Archive

Aircraft and their carriers like the USS Essex (CV-9), seen here in 1945, were voted the greatest naval innovation ever by readers of USNI news. Naval Institute Photo Archive

The number one answer was “aircraft at sea on an aircraft carrier.” As noted by a reader, it “allows the Navy to be a strategic asset, it gives the leadership flexibility in responding to international crises. Aircraft are effective against air, surface and subsurface threats, which no other weapon system/platform can claim. It has a reach far beyond that of any gun, it can be more precise than any missile, and it is recallable if the circumstances of its employment change. Its versatility is unmatched in the history of naval technology.” The value of aircraft to naval warfare was not immediately recognized, though forward-thinking strategists like Brigadier General “Billy” Mitchell had foreseen the necessity of air power. It was not until World War II that the real value of aircraft became evident to many.

Interestingly, Admiral Arleigh Burke (1901-1996) had once posed a similar question to Admiral Marc Mitscher (1887-1947). Mitscher, one of the Navy’s pioneer aviators and commander of the Fast Carrier Task Force in the Pacific, Burke recounted in an Oral History interview with the Naval Institute in 1979, was unhesitant in his belief that pilots had become “the most important thing in battle.”

Steam Propulsion

 Steamships, like Robert Fulton’s design for the Paragon Steam Boat (shown here in a mezzotint print copied from Fulton’s original notebooks), revolutionized travel by sea. Naval Institute Photo Archive

Steamships, like Robert Fulton’s design for the Paragon Steam Boat (shown here in a mezzotint print copied from Fulton’s original notebooks), revolutionized travel by sea. Naval Institute Photo Archive

Another well-recognized innovation in the survey was the advent of steam propulsion. This “freed ships from the vagaries of the winds and increased overall speeds.” The reliance on wind power for propulsion was a known but dangerous fact of sailing and naval warfare for millennia, and history is replete with examples of ships succumbing to storms, such as the famous Kamikaze typhoons, or being stranded in the Doldrums for want of wind and tide.

But in the early 19th century, inventors like Robert Fulton began to apply the power of the steam engine—known since the early 1700s—to naval propulsion. “The application of steam propulsion to ships,” noted one Proceedings writer, “restored the tactical mobility which had been lost when the oar was discarded for sail. It gave fleets a temporary superiority which momentarily offset their losses in relative strategic mobility.” Yet for decades seagoing vessels retained their sails, and steam was more or less an auxiliary apparatus. But over time, the effectiveness of steam against Mother Nature’s fury became more than evident, and sails were largely abandoned.

Nuclear Propulsion

The nuclear-powered USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the first ship to utilize nuclear propulsion. Naval Institute Photo Archive

The nuclear-powered USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the first ship to utilize nuclear propulsion. Naval Institute Photo Archive

Much as steam propulsion permitted ships to move under their own power, nuclear propulsion, readers recognized, revolutionized surface and submarine tactics. Developers of atomic energy recognized the potential for nuclear power to provide long-term sources for energy without the need for refueling, as coal- and liquid-fueled ships had relied on for over a century. Nuclear energy, without the need for frequent refueling, offered the possibility of “continuous cruising at top speeds, unlimited cruising radii, and practically absolute freedom from fuel logistics.” Ships such as the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and Enterprise (CVN-65) “allow[ed] navies to do what navies do best—project national power overseas in support of foreign policy.”

Navigation and Navigating Technologies

John Harrison’s Marine Timekeeper (Harrison Number One), ca. 1735. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England

John Harrison’s Marine Timekeeper (Harrison Number One), ca. 1735. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England

Many readers recognized the critical value of navigation on the seas. “Until seafarers could comfortably navigate the seas, commerce and naval warfare would always be limited to close in-shore,” one reader noted. Ancient navigators such as the Phoenicians and the Chaldeans found their bearings by referencing the positions of the stars and sun, and by hugging the coastline for recognizable landmarks which allowed them to explore the coasts of Britain and sail around the Horn of Africa.

Chinese compasses. Naval Institute Photo Archive

Chinese compasses. Naval Institute Photo Archive

But it was not until the development of magnetic compasses that the first intercontinental voyages could occur. The magnetic properties of lodestone were understood as early as 400 BCE, and it is thought early Viking and Roman navigators harnessed those properties for navigation, but the earliest confirmed remarks to its use date to ancient China, and instances of “‘South-pointing chariots’ are said to have been used ashore in warfare about 800 A.D.” Chinese compasses and navigation charts, once described by one European as “very useful when once understood, and not so rude as their appearance indicates,” had spread to Europe by the 13th century, and in time allowed the Occident to largely control the seas for centuries.

A medieval floating compass. Naval Institute Photo Archive

A medieval floating compass. Naval Institute Photo Archive

The compass and celestial navigation really only provided—with any accuracy—just half the necessities for navigation. In order to determine the longitude of one’s position at sea, an accurate timekeeper was needed. Thus, readers were quick to recognize the development of the chronometer by John Harrison in the 18th century as a monumental innovation in the history of navigation and the world’s navies. With that accurate timekeeper, built to withstand the rocking forces and other impacts of the shipboard environment, “the art of navigation became something more than the crude approximations of former times.”

  • PolicyWonk

    I would’ve thought the advent of the turret, the major feature of the Monitor, still in wide use by almost every warship today, might’ve made the cut.

    But the others listed above, are very important without doubt.

    • El_Sid

      The Monitor wasn’t the first with a turret – HMS Trusty had a revolving turret before the Monitor, and the Lady Nancy barge had one in the Crimean War, designs for turrets go back to Napoleonic times. I’d have put gunpowder at least ahead of the turret.

      I see the Rickover groupies are still out in force, even though nuclear submarines have killed more of their own crew than enemy…

      • Secundius

        First Recorded Naval Battle to use Cannons. Was the Battle of Arnemuiden in 1338 between England and France. The English Ship Christopher, ONLY mounted 3 Cannon. By the Mid 15th Century, NEARLY ALL European Navy Ships Mounted Cannons of Various Calibers…

  • Curtis Conway

    That’s easy for an Aegis Sailor . . . the Aegis Combat System, and its non-rotating 3D radar with all that is provided by that construct. I suppose that is why we have 22 cruisers and over 60 destroyers equipped with this system is the fleet, is the envy of the world, and many navies around the globe are copying the success.

    • Secundius

      Conformal Radar, Like the Ones used on Israeli Grumman G-650’s AEW aircrafts. Built to Form as Part of the Fuselage…

  • RobM1981

    All of these are huge advances, but I still say that the Sail had a larger impact than any of these. You might even say the Oar, but it was the sail that made maritime trade real, at a meaningful scale. This is what drove the need for Navies.

    Steam, Aircraft, nuclear, navigation – all huge, for sure, but not as huge as figuring out how to use the wind.

  • On Dre

    Coffee makers aboard ship. Duh!

    • publius_maximus_III

      SPAM.

  • old guy

    WATER

  • Merlin Dorfman

    Truly amazing that Submarines didn’t make the list, and high up on the list at that.

  • Secundius

    First Boat Hull, ~10,000 BCE
    First Sail Propulsion: ~4,000 BCE
    First Block and Tackle: ~2,500 BCE
    First Flaghoist (Communications): ~431 BCE

  • SierraSierraQuebec

    100% Inaccurate Statement: “allows the Navy to be a strategic asset, it gives the leadership
    flexibility in responding to international crises. Aircraft are
    effective against air, surface and subsurface threats, which no other
    weapon system/platform can claim. It has a reach far beyond that of any
    gun, it can be more precise than any missile, and it is recallable if
    the circumstances of its employment change. Its versatility is unmatched
    in the history of naval technology.”

    A relatively easy to build (with government funding) “Micro Babylon SuperGun” could project a 100lb glide shell capable of destroying most major military assets at any location on any continent, a capability that dwarfs the capacity of an aircraft carrier. The age of the aircraft carrier passed about ten years ago when the age of the big gun super frigate began.

    Maybe we could bring back the mounted lancers, or just get off the high horse and into the present day.

    • Secundius

      A “FIXED” Gun System that Doesn’t Move. Germany Had One in WW2, the British RAF Made Scrap Metal Out of It, using 25,000-pound “Tall Boys”…

      • Piergiorgio from Italy

        well, there was a mobile platform, well protected, for big supergun, I think was called “Battleship”.. and too many countries have enough “protected bastions” areas (es. Italy has the Thyrrenian Sea, France the Bay of Biscay, UK has the Irish sea) to shell out real or perceived enemies..

        • Secundius

          The Closest thing to a Battleship in 2016 and Beyond Standards, is a Gunned Arsenal Ship…

          • Piergiorgio from Italy

            well, she survived the IX trials (done by night time..) and pass with honours the builder’s trials, but I’m doubtful on the all-weather capabilities of no.1 turret; but the other, much more protected from green water, turret should suffice in the majority of the current cases. But it’s only the starting point…

          • Secundius

            Are you talking about the Joint Collaboration Program between the USA and Canada, called HARP. It’s Not an Offensive Weapon, but a Low Cost Alternative of Sending Payloads into Low-Earth Orbit…

          • Piergiorgio from Italy

            No, I was speaking about USS Zumwalt, whose, in my understanding, IS a “gunned Arsenal ship”…

          • Secundius

            Are you referring to the Rail-Guns or the 6.1-inch (155mm) AGS…

          • Piergiorgio from Italy

            In general, on the various “project longshot”; currently the lone with operational capability is the Italian 127/64, then (~1 year) will come the AGS, much longer term for the railgun.

          • Secundius

            Zumwalt’s DON’T mount any 5-inch guns…

          • El_Sid

            He’s not saying that they do – merely that Vulcano is here now (for any ship with a 5″ Oto gun) whereas Zumwalt/AGS is not yet commissioned.

          • Secundius

            The Diehl BGT Defense GmbH & Ko. KG, 127 Vulcano can be used on the BAE 5-inch 127mm/54/62/65-Caliber Naval Artillery Deck Guns…

          • El_Sid

            In theory, but is it actually qualified on the Mk45?

          • Secundius

            The US Navy, hasn’t yet tested the 127 Vucano on their Mk.45 Naval Gun Mounts. But Other Navies that Also Use Either the Mk. 42 and 45 have. and Qualified in their Respective Navies…