We must lead, not follow, in naval development – Even after 100 years, it is still true

Looking around the world today, I am concerned about my country’s ability to defend itself.

Government influence and some in the navy’s leadership have made many decisions over the past forty years that are put us at risk. The greatest example is the phenomenal failure of the littoral combat ship project. I had at one point thought that the creation of the Perry Class frigates was the single worst expenditure in American Naval History.

But the littoral project has truly surpassed that. One can only wonder how many politicians profited in votes and contributions because of these ill thought ships.


Sadly, our country has a long history of questionable maritime decisions.


On February 10, 1923, an article appeared in the Washington Times warning the public about the direction of the navy leadership in regards to the existing battleship fleet and the lack of support by many for submarines and aircraft carriers.

I had previously written a few articles about Rear Admiral William Fullam and his vision for the future of the Navy. He had observed the sinking of the old German battleships by air power and was still trying to get the public to become aware of the futility of ignoring the potential for submarines and aircraft.

The Three Plane Navy – The Story of Rear Admiral Fullam’s Vision

1924 – America is 8 Years behind in Submarine Development


Compared to the obscene amounts of money we throw at defense now, the sums he mentioned may seem paltry.

But remember that this was 1923 and the value for those same dollars was probably equivalent in many ways to today’s spending.



Day of Dreadnaughts Almost Gone, Writes Rear Admiral.

Cites World War.

By REAR ADMIRAL W. F. FULLAM, U. S. N„ Retired, One of the foremost naval authorities.

In the following exclusive article for The Washington Times, Rear Admiral W. F. Fullam, U. S. N., retired, criticizes Secretary of the Navy Denby’s request for $6,500,000 to modernize some of the old naval vessels, pointing out that it would be far wiser to spend the money for airplanes and submarines.

The proposition to expend $30,000,000 or more to increase the gun-range and to improve the above-water and under-water protection of our present battleships in order that they may the better resist torpedoes, mines, and bombs, presents many interesting and serious problems. This policy should not be approved until it is thoroughly analyzed and its soundness demonstrated beyond question. Let us briefly examine it.

Futility of Patching.

In the first place the plan to spend so much money on the ships that have been declared to be the “back-bone” of our navy is tantamount to an admission of the following facts:

1 – That the dreadnaught is very vulnerable to air and submarine

2 – That the air-plane, used in controlling gun fire, has increased the practicable range of Mg guns.

3 – That the upper decks are too week to resist heavy bombs and the plunging fire of heavy guns.

4 – That the under-water hull cannot, at present, resist modern torpedoes, heavy mines, and heavy bombs that explode as depth bombs below water.

5 – That these weaknesses in the Dreadnaught force us to the unfortunate expedients of loading the ships down with more deck armor, and adding “blisters” and “bulges” under water, as a protection for the ship’s hull.

6 – As a result of these changes, the ships will sink deeper in the water and their speed will be reduced by the defensive projecting “blisters” attached below the water line.

Battleships Weaknesses.

All these weaknesses in the Dreadnaught have been known for years. Attention has been called to them repeatedly by progressive officers at home and abroad. It was demonstrated in testimony before the Naval Committees of Congress two years ago and verified by the bombing of the German ships, that the dreadnaught as now designed is so weak that its years, if not its days, are numbered. That submarines and mines in the world war had circumscribed the battleship’s usefulness and that air forces, as recently developed, had jeopardized its very existence.

Despite these powerful arraignments, the political and official forces that blocked the 1916 building program turned a deaf ear, pooh-poohed submarines and air forces, and would have pushed the battleships and battle cruisers to completion had it not been, most fortunately, for the decrees of the Washington conference that happily stopped the battleship race.

It is not enough to say that some of these ships, had they been completed, would have been provided with these new offensive and defensive features. The best naval minds in the world today are of the opinion that, before these ships are patched up, and before the new British dreadnaughts can be built, the power of the torpedo; the mine, the bomb, and the attacking skill of the submarine and airplane will be so increased as to wreck the new construction as it has the old model! The attack will again overpower the defense.

Nullifying the Conference.

No sooner had the Washington conference adjourned than we began to hear the moaning’s and groaning’s and calamity predictions of the 1916 six-year-old-out-of-date building-program advocates. They were silenced, within limits, by the fact that the present Administration very properly considers the treaties to be both righteous and wise.

But their conservative behind-the- times mental processes which blind them to the inevitable future domination of air and submarine forces in naval warfare still act to shackle their minds. It may be said, therefore, that this project to attempt to patch up our battleships in a vain effort to resuscitate the defunct 1916 program by some kind of naval blood transfusion.

To be sure there has been some gain in the discussion. Conservative minds have been forced, against their will, to admit the value of submarine and air forces. The Navy Department and Secretary Hughes also have stressed our need of sea going, long range submarines, light cruisers, airplane carriers and airplanes. This is most fortunate, for the navy is sadly in need of these types. Without them the even with a hundred battleships, would be powerless. It would be a weak navy.

What Is a Strong Navy?

The writer believes in a strong Navy. The United States must have a strong navy. But what is a strong navy? That is the question. Patching up the slow moving-ice-wagon elements will not make it strong. We do not make it strong by first making it weaker! We must keep the battleships we now have, but we must add the new weapons that we now lack swift, powerful, deadly weapons that have put the dreadnought between two such dangerous fires that its proponents now propose to root it over and armor its bottom!

The fact that England may pursue this patching policy is no reason for our doing so. We must lead, not follow, in naval development. Admiral Sir Percy Scott once said that Sir John Fisher led the German admiralty, previous to the world war, into a vain and foolish battleship race— and that this blind blunder by the Germans won the war for the allies! And this fact is admitted today.

Had Germany refused to enter the dreadnought race, and developed and built a large submarine fleet, as well as a powerful air force in 1910 to 1914, she would have won the war hands down despite the battleship fleets of England, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Suppose Germany had had 100 submarines Instead of thirty in 1914? Ask Jellicoe and Sims what they think about it! Remember the first statement Jellicoe made to Sims in the spring of 1917, when Sims reached London. “We can’t go on like this much longer.”

The United States must not be led by the nose as stupidly as was Germany, and with the same result—to lose the next war! We must think and act for ourselves — and we must think and act right. We must look ahead not back.

An Up-to-Date Navy.

There is one more important point—the financial. Will Congress and the people give us more millions to put patches on weak battleships and at the same time give us the millions we really need for cruisers, submarines and air forces? Will they do both? If not, which will they most likely do? Will they readily agree to spend money on the dying naval gladiators of the past, or will they prefer to add to the modern and powerful elements of a 1923 fighting navy?

We may perhaps add three or four miles to the range of the battleship guns, making it fifteen miles, or we may develop the air plane carrier, whose gun, the airplane, will have a range of 100 miles, four times as great as the sixteen-inch gun! And the carrier can have a speed from five to ten miles greater than the patched battleships! Which?


Eight days later, on February 18th, 1923, the Navy answered in an article written by Admiral David Taylor. Taylor was considered one of the world’s greatest naval constructors and designers of the day. In fact, six of the giant warships then being scrapped because of the Washington Naval Arms Limitations were designed and built under his watchful eye.


Admiral Taylor is not among those who believe the battleship was rendered obsolete by the air[1]plane bombing tests off the Atlantic coast, when the former German warships were sunk. He has great respect for the airplane, but believes the tests proved merely that a battleship can be sunk by an explosion in the water nearby, a fact which was already known from experience with mines. As for the hits scored, he does not regard that as remarkable, “considering the conditions under which the airplanes worked.” The navy, he said, is carrying out a common-sense plan of utilizing this important new weapon of warfare.

“Naval plans,” he declared, “call for airplanes on every naval vessel, even down to destroyers.”

“Persons are accustomed to speak in rosy terms of the possibilities of aircraft, as if they were already accomplished facts. It is as if, in the days of wooden ships, sailormen had foreseen the battleship of today and talked of her as if she then existed, overlooking the fact that years and years were to elapse before their dreams became a reality.”


The admiral cited the fact that the Liberty motor, invented in 1917, had undergone scarcely any improvement since that time.

“If we could reduce the weight of that motor one-third,” he said, “we could entirely change the design of the airplane.”

Just as the battleship developed the armor plate against heavy gunfire, and the defenses against torpedoes and submarines, so it will develop protection against the airplane, and the latter will become a useful weapon of the naval warfare of the future.

From Global Security.org:

“No new American battleships were built until 1936 when USS North Carolina was authorized by the Congress. No new American battleships were commissioned from 1923 to 1941. In 1938, the Japanese government publicly renounced the latest round of naval limitation treaties. With this announcement, the United States responded by beginning work on a new, much larger 45,000-ton battleship design. In a commonly held view, the United States and Britain fared badly in the naval agreements of the 1920s and 1930s. The Axis powers built up their navies in the 1930s, the democracies languished behind, and Germany and Japan were harder to defeat at sea during World War II precisely because of this unhappy record.”

“By 1940 Pacific Fleet moved to the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The battleship era ended only with the arrival, effectively just before the start of World War II, of aircraft that could not only out-range the big guns, but also deliver blows of equal or greater power. Thereafter, at least in the daylight when the planes could fly, battleships performed as auxiliaries to aircraft carriers. During these years the nature of naval power was changing as a result of the perfection of the airplane and the introduction of a new capital ship utilizing this new weapon — the aircraft carrier.”


Rear Admiral Fullam would continue with his crusade until his death in 1926.

But nearly every prediction he made came to pass.

I wonder again where the Fullams of today are hiding?

Mister Mac


One thought on “We must lead, not follow, in naval development – Even after 100 years, it is still true

  1. I am afraid that, as always, it will take some major tragedy to get the politicians off their butts and their brains in gear. Hopefully not, but the country seems more at loose ends, politicians less intellectually stellar, and the citizenry so inwardly and selfishly focused that a strong Navy probably won’t be on the mind’s of but a few that have either BTDT or that are students of history (or both). It doesn’t take a “rocket surgeon” to see that we aren’t where we need to be – but someone has to at least be looking.
    Thanks for keeping a lookout and sounding out the warnings, Mr. Mac!
    “Mr. Bill” “Fossil” Heaton
    (ex) IC1 (SS)
    SSBN-634, SSN-681

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