3 Technologies That Revolutionized Naval Warfare

Source: The USS Ticonderoga firing a Harpoon missile. Credit: Wikipedia

How the radio, radar, and computers changed warfare as we know it.

From the discovery of North America to the Age of Napoleon, naval technology has changed shockingly little. Designs changed and tactics shifted, but the fundamental technologies that underpinned naval warfare stayed relatively consistent. Wooden ships, powered by wind and sail, and armed with bronze and iron powder cannons plied the seas. During the Golden Age of Sail, captains were absolute masters of their ship. Once out of port, their crews were completely isolated, ignorant of everything which occurred beyond the limits of their immediate senses. Warships and rival fleets groped for each other like men in the dark, with only the vaguest idea where the enemy was.

This bleak (or romantic, depending on your perspective) picture slowly began to change with the Industrial Revolution. Wooden hulls were replaced with iron and steel. Steam replaced wind as a ships main motive force, and long-range rifled artillery replaced the old cannon, which had remained almost unchanged over the last 300 hundred years. But the basis of naval combat had changed relatively little. Once away from shore, individual captains and even whole fleets still dealt with many of the same fundamental problems. Namely, where was the enemy, and where were friendly ships? And how could the former be attacked to the maximum advantage of the latter?

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Expanded Communications

Things only began to change in this regard at the dawn of the 20th century when navies helped to pioneer three great technologies: radios, radar, and computers. At least in terms of naval warfare, these were the three most important inventions since the compass and the square sail.

A Marconi Telegraph reciever ca. 1917. Credit: Wikipedia
A Marconi Telegraph reciever ca. 1917. Credit: Wikipedia

The first invention, wireless communications, was first developed in the last years of the 19th century. Guglielmo Marconi, in 1894, patented a new form of instantaneous communication. Using recently discovered radio waves, the 'Marconi' telegraph could broadcast messages in Morse Code across vast distances. By 1897, Marconi had founded a company in London and was selling the wireless sets to every customer who came to his door. Chief among these customers was the British Royal Navy. With an empire that spanned from the North Sea to India, past Singapore, and into the Pacific Ocean, the Royal Navy's commitments covered the globe. When war came, as it did in 1914, London needed to coordinate a vast military machine to protect its interests and possessions. Threats, such as the one posed by the raider SMS Emden, could only be countered by coordinating the movements of ships across thousands of miles of oceans. By utilizing the Marconi telegraph, commanders, admirals, and policymakers on shore could coordinate the flow of ships and information to trap and destroy their enemies, as the SMS Emden was.

By the end of World War One, virtually every warship afloat was capable of wireless communication. Between the wars, nearly every major power began to experiment with other applications for this new radio technology.

Radio Leads to Radar

In 1922, US Navy researchers on the Potomac River made a key breakthrough. They created a machine which could use these new waves to detect the passage of ships, even in poor weather. Building on these experiments, researchers across the world worked to increase the range and accuracy of these new radar devices while simultaneously decreasing their size. By the end of World War II, radars had become highly sophisticated. They painted accurate maps of the battlefield, detecting both surface and airborne targets for hundreds of nautical miles around a ship. Captains could suddenly see the world around them in incredible detail out to extreme ranges. But where things got interesting was in the natural union of the radar with the radio. That is to say, admirals in the rear or even policymakers on shore suddenly had nearly instantaneous access to information of unprecedented scope and detail. They could craft plans based on highly accurate information, transmitted nearly instantaneously, which spanned across whole oceans.

Computers Completely Change Naval Warfare

But it was the last innovation, computerization, which pulled all of these other technologies together. We are all familiar with the personal computer revolution of the 1980s, but within the US Navy, as early as the 1960s experiments were being conducted which fused computers with planning and war fighting. In terms of data analysis, the navy pioneered what today we would call machine learning and systems analysis. Utilizing unprecedented volumes of data being gathered by units in the field, computers allowed admirals to see not just where enemy assets were, but also predict with a high degree of accuracy where they may go. Miniaturization, combined with satellite technology and precision-guided munitions all gave the navy additional capabilities.

ombat Information Center of the German frigate Hamburg. Credit: Wikipedia
Combat Information Center of the German frigate Hamburg. Credit: Wikipedia

Commanders could combine all these innovations into the ultimate form of push button warfare. Data gathered by radars at sea could be relayed back to commanders in the rear nearly instantaneously. This data was used to paint a highly accurate picture of the battlespace and to establish projections of the enemy's activities and intentions. Once the picture was clear, and once policymakers back home had cleared the strike, commanders simply had to load the data into one of a number of strike packages and launch an attack against targets that might not yet be in the target area.

So what do you think? How influential were these technologies? Did we leave anything out? Let us know in the comments below!

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.