It's an interesting fact about the renaissance of the United States Navy in the years before World War One that, while it was eager to appropriate for battleships, the General Board was distinctly cool to the idea of building cruisers. The rationale for that was that cruisers were mainly useful for protecting commerce, and the United States didn't have much oceanic maritime commerce. You will find the details of this, in more detail than anyone ever wanted, in Norman Friedman's massive oeuvre, specifically the volume on cruisers, available at your more fanboy-friendly research libraries.** Which turned out to be a bit silly, because as naval war in the North Sea approached, the British and Germans began churning out "fleet" cruisers, aiming to build fast, (relatively) large gun/torpedo platforms to scout and dominate the torpedo battle spaces from which the new putting-holes-in-ships weapon could be used with effect. Then there were battlecruisers, and "large light cruisers" and "fast battleships," and by the time that the General Board clued in, it seemed like it was too late to do anything but order a mix of red-headed step children and grotesque white elephants.***
Then came the Washington Naval Treaty, in which the three main naval powers came to a general agreement to sacrifice what they didn't need anyway in exchange for hilarious global and individual displacement limitations on new warships. I say "hilarious" because there's nothing funnier than a naval architect having a nervous breakdown, which is what ensued when the Admiralty sat the lads down and told them to design and build a class of "general service" cruisers mounting lots of 8" guns on 10,000 tons displacement and no more, the outside limits allowed in the Treaty. Parliament, momentarily distracted from driving, turned round and looked crossly at the Admiralty, which pointed the finger at Japan, claiming that all the cool kids were doing it. Because clouting the little, er, angels is bad parenting, Parliament gritted its teeth and returned to driving, leaving everything set for a good old fashioned naval race.
This presented the General Board in Washington with something of a dilemma. It didn't want "General Service" cruisers, because it still didn't have commerce in distant waters to protect. But now it had to build them, anyway. Because, you know, all the cool kids were doing it. So it thought and it thought, and came up with a reason for having them. Japan, it was not news, was going with a Jeune Ecole
Hence USS San Francisco (1935; 9x8") and Salt Lake City (1929; 10x8"), two 10,000 ton heavy cruisers with a main armament of 108" guns
And so there came to be the only WWII-era family of cruiser classes (that I'm aware of) that didn't have torpedo tubes. Just guns and more guns. But they were for the guns, right? And that's awesome? I think? Well, no. As I mentioned in the header, the United States entered World War II with somewhat antiquated production facilities, and that most definitely included the DuPont chemical works in Delaware from which the United States armed forces procured its propellants and bursters. The chemical compositions of both were a little antiquated by 1914 standards, and positively antique by WWII standards. American shells had less bursting power, needed larger amounts of propellant to get them where they're going, and, although extra-large for greater armour-piercing by the end of the war, had less room for burster, and thus even less gross explosive capability than their Japanese rivals.(1) Given the intended purpose of the 8", which was to utterly devastate destroyers, tiny little packages crammed full of steam thingies, these weren't critical disadvantages. Unfortunately, Scott's priority targets were better-armoured and more capacious cruisers, and although he shot them a lot, too many of his targets, per Monday night quarterbacking, got away.
(ii) Light Cruisers
So, by 1929, the Admiralty is well on the way to "winning" the heavy cruiser arms race
Perhaps more importantly, someone finally asked whether 8" guns were really the right weapon for varmint shootin'. The difference between 8" and 6" is a little hard to parse (though not as hard as the difference between 8" and 7.5" adopted in some American pre-dreadnoughts), but it is the difference between a 240lb shell and a 100lb. This is why 6" is pretty much the cutoff for "rapid firing" guns. It's pretty much the biggest shell that a matelot can stagger around with (separate firing), even on a relatively stable ship. (We shan't talk about certain navies making the slightly crazy decision to put 5.9" guns on destroyers.) 8" guns mean assisted loading arrangements, and assisted loading means delay, and that means a longer lag between laying the director sights on the target and a shell reaching them, and that's bad for shooting at, say, destroyers.
So, at the 1930 London Treaty discussions, the Admiralty was all, like, "Hey, those 8" cruisers are totally over. Let's all build 6" cruisers!" And the Americans and Japanese were all, "We didn't want the 8" cruisers to start with, and we certainly don't want 6" cruisers, so let's not change for the sake of change, okay?' And the Admiralty is all, like, "If we don't get our way, we'll hold our breath until we turn blue, and let's not forget who has the biggest industry and biggest budget in the business, like a bunch of Telegraph writers." And the Japanese and the Americans were all, like, "Okay, you win." And, yes, the Japanese, admittedly, did cheat. Just not in a way that actually helped.
And that's how the United States Navy ended up with two "light cruisers" fighting at the Battle of Cape Esperance: Boise, a Brooklyn-class cruiser (1936), and the brand-new Helena, a 10,000 ton ship mounting 15 6" guns. Traditionally, admirals fly their flags from their most powerful ship, give or take factors such as command spaces. The reason for this is that if they lose control of the fight in, for example, a chaotic night battle, they have the most powerful means of influencing events in hand. And that, it would seem, would be Helena, right? Well, there is the "give or take" here, but that weighs even more heavily in favour of Helena. It had the more modern radar suite, and night fights tend to break out at short ranges, favouring the rapid fire of 6" guns over the greater armour piercing power at longer ranges of the 8" gun.
Yet Scott flew his flag from San Francisco. Admittedly, USS San Francisco was the most decorated ship in the Pacific, and it could be a formidable gunfighter. For example, it killed.... Er, never mind. Too easy. Scott's decision to fly his flag from San Francisco has been roundly criticised, since Helena got a good, early radar fix on the Japanese at Cape Esperance. Had this information been available to Scott in a more timely fashion, he would, indeed, have won Cape Esperance more. Yet not only did he not choose Helena for his flag, but in the next battle, Callaghan flew his flag from San Francisco, and Scott shifted his to the 6000 ton anti-aircraft cruiser Atlanta, once again skipping over Helena. How stupid was this guy?
Not stupid at all, as it turns out, although it took us until 2002 for David Mindell, MIT's Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing to reveal the United States Navy's dirty little secret. The American 6" gun system sucked. It was Mindell who first published details of the problems that the Navy had with hunting in the 6" power mounting, a revelation that unleashed much linking to veterans reminiscing about the ornery behaviour of the new mountings introduced in the late 1930s. Duncan Munro has very kindly sent me an info dump relating mainly to AA fire control and mounting behaviour that I obviously can't reproduce here, but which I hope to see published under his name in the near future. In the meantime, take a look at this Internet trainwreck/spanking, beginning here at KBismarck.com, with many more links.
Mindell, bless his soul as an MIT professor, has a very specific take on things, which is that there is an "engineering tradition," and an academic tradition. That is, American engineering firms just go out and build any old thing they like, and then the big brains at MIT have to come in and fix things up by putting math in. And that's certainly the way things worked in the case of gun mountings, but the fact is that I know this out of British sources, specifically in an excellent unsigned article series published in the first half of 1937 in The Engineer that used to be (mistakenly) attributed to Russian-American engineer Nicolas Minorsky. Because the IEEE eulogy to Minorsky where the claim was originally made now seems closed to readers, I quite unfairly point to Stuart Bennett, who seems to have backed off on the attribution, but I do so for the best of reasons. No, Internet, not character assassination, since, God knows, we need more researchers like Dr. Bennett, but because of bad bibliographic practice. I have fragmentary notes on the series, and intend to get myself a photocopy when the relevant volumes return from the impenetrable recesses of a distant storage facility. In the mean time, you can take my word for it that the anonymous author delivers a dry but hilarious takedown of the Sperry autopilot apparatus, which, Mindell makes clear, was the unaltered basis of all of the Sperry/Fisher remote drives and power equipment used by the United States Navy in the mid-30s.(3)
What this means in practice is that while words like "accuracy" and "error" call irresistably to mind the specific problems of delivering computed firing solutions from directing apparatus to gun, the problem is, in fact, much more general. Every time you tell a remote system to move to a bearing chosen by computation, you face the problem that there is a lag between proximate and remote system. You tell it to point at something, and, some time later, it starts to point at it. In a (physically) stable coupled system, that's that. In a rolling, yawing, pitching warship, where the remote system has to train at a wide range of elevations, each demanding a different torque power sum to reach, things begin to get interesting. And the faster that you tell the system to move (to take advantage of the fact that it is faster, for example), the more drastic the braking decceleration has to be, and the greater the "backlash."
Technically, the easiest way to do this is to have a pointer that serves the gun through a completely autonomous, multifunction artificial intelligence. Which is how things stood in 1900, and, as a matter of fact, pretty much in 1943. It's just that the AI in question is called a "human being," and these tend to be a bit slow in action, have their own random error function, and also produce gales of derisive laughter from said armchair quarterbacks, who tend to have an exaggerated sense of what remote position/power control is capable of.(2) However, even the AI is going to end up desperately trying to manually squeeze hunting out of the system if it isn't sufficiently stiff. The Germans and British had problems with stiffness in first generation power drive systems in WWI. The Germans used a robust and simple electrical equipment called the "synchro," while the British fiddled about with hydraulics. Postwar, the British came up with the magslip, while the Germans used thyratrons. The Americans persisted with the synchro, which in the history as handed down to us, was an awesome GE technology first proven by the Panama Canal and in every way totally excellent.(3)
This isn't to slag on the synchro too harshly. It does exactly the task to which it was being put when properly implemented, and you can say the same about practically any technology. The United States Navy manned up when it discovered its problem (and was given the money to fix it), called in MIT, and gradually modified its synchros in situ to fix problems with stiffness, overheating, zeroing, and many other problems as well.(5) It's just that it wasn't fixed in late 1942, and, as a result, it was very hard to use the theoreticallly massive firepower of the new American 6" cruisers with effect in 1942, which is why Helena and her sisters blazed away merrily in the fall sea fights to little effect other than to illuminate themselves like beacons with the old-fashioned high flash American propellants.
iii) The Destroyers
The destroyer fleet of the USN seems to have had one function in the 1942 sea fights. And that was to rush towards the Japanese, clutter up the radar plots, get shot at by friend and foe alike, and then sink. That's a pretty harsh indictment of ships designed to make close attacks, trained for close attacks, and delivering close attacks. It wouldn't be that harsh if no destroyers actually executed on the mission, as was true at Jutland. But since Japanese destroyers and American destroyer escorts both did awesome jobs of just exactly this, we might well ask, WTF? There were training issues, and manning issues, to be sure, but the discussion comes around to the weapons. For while American cruisers lacked torpedoes, American destroyers did not. Torpedo Boat Destroyers are, in general, caught between stools a little by the fact that they're supposed to stop torpedo attacks as well as deliver them. However, one can see how this confusion is inevitable once one starts thinking in terms of dominating the torpedo battle space. That's where destroyers are supposed to fight, and the tasks of delivering, and deflecting torpedo attacks are, in reality, one.
So it is fair, as it sometimes is not, to talk technological turkey here. As we perfectly well know, Japanese torpedoes were excellent, while American torpedoes sucked. It seems to have been Morison, speaking of purple prose, who started calling the big, oxygen-fed Japanese weapons "Long Lances," but, for once, the phallic overtones don't speak to overcompensation. The Long Lances killed a great many Allied ships, and while I would think twice about having oxygen plant onboard ship,***** to a navy that deliberately built military aircraft without self-sealing fuel tanks, the risks can be seen as manageable.(6)
"Long Lances" were better than American torpedoes for fairly obvious reasons. First of all, they were bigger, and that was a bit of a dubious advantage given the difficulty of wrestling reloads into the tube. Second, they used (dangerous, as noted) pure oxygen as their oxidiser as choice, giving an excellent automotive efficiency of 5.8 lb/hp hour, corresponding to high ranges at high speeds. The Japanese torpedo battle space was greater than the American, and so Japanese ships had many more opportunities to fire torpedoes.
So that's not a good thing. Nor is it a good thing that American torpedoes had serious reliability issues in the early war period, which is all that I am going to say about that, since I suspect a publicity war between the navy and its former main contractor, the Bliss Company, with which it fell out in the 1920s. (Rather as it fell out with the Sperry/Vickers group, only to have to come crawling back after Sperry was purchased by the Fisher interest.) It's also not the issue. The issue isn't that American torpedoes were small and a bit crap due to being safe. It's that American technical research basically had a tea break between 1914 and 1940. It wasn't just the Japanese weapon. The pedestrianly enriched-air, 21" British Mark VIII torpedo had twice the automotive efficiency of the standard American torpedo! The difference is the engineering of the engine of the British versus American engine, with the former, as usual in these comparisons, standing more extreme conditions, and thus having a higher efficiency, due to greater attention to design and metallurgy.(7)
This brings me back to my title. America went to war in 1942 with inferior weapons. And it was good strategy that saved the American taxpayer enormous amounts of money in peacetime at the cost of a few American servicemen in a war that the nation, after all, won. The question, or, rather, the metaquestion, is the old "spinoff" thing. Might there be a mode of analysis in which wasting taxpayers' money on better weapons in peacetime has a national benefit apart from winning contingent future wars? If there is, does the argument default to some kind of military Keynesianism, in which it's always good to spend as much on guns as possible, since, in the final analysis, demand-side stimulus is good for the economy? Or can we find a deeper mode of analysis in which a strategic dialectic plays a part. That is, does usefulness, intermittently tested in battle, have a hysteresis on military Keynesianism?
That's a rhetorical question, of course. I'm on about the militaries we need as opposed to the militaries we want, again. War is the source of vast amounts of human suffering, and no human suffering is good human suffering, but we have a well-observed tendency for wars to force themselves on the political apparatus upwards as well as downwards. "The broad masses of the people," in classic vulgar Marxist talk, seem to want a good war now and then, just as do the top-down forces of neo-conservative imperialism at other times. The question, it seems to me, is "who benefits?" The USN of 1942 sliced up exactly a big enough piece of pie to satisfy the top, because Congress and the Presidency didn't expect to fight a naval war. Had it expected to fight a war, it would have remedied the technical weaknesses that I have identified, and there would have been a bigger pie to slice. Would that have changed the social role of military technology, and, for example, promoted trade unionism in the United States, as it seems to have done in the United Kingdom? It's an interesting question, I think --perhaps even an approach to an explanation of the different levels of unionisation in the "settler" nations between Australia and Canada on the one hand and the United States, on the other?
1. (Details, delivered somewhat less judgementally, to be found in Campbell's Naval Weapons of World War II. The actual chemistry of the explosives is quite interesting, if you're into that kind of stuff. Here's the footnote of my gassy [I'm hilarious] unpublished discussion: P. R. Courtney-Green, Ammunition for the Land Battle (London: Brassey’s, 1991): 1–11; J. Akhavan, The Chemistry of Explosives (Cambridge, U.K.; Royal Society of Chemistry, ): 9–11, 36, 171; E. Freeman, “Thermodynamic Properties of Military Gun Propellants,” 103–32 in Stiefel, ed. 122–27; J. M. Heimerl, “Muzzle Flash Kinetics and Modelling,” 261–310 in Stiefel, ed., 266; Constance M. Green,, H. Thomson, and P. Root, The United States Army in World War II: The Technical Services: The Ordnance Services: Planning Munitions for War (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1953), 354; John Campbell, Naval Weapons of World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994; Originally published London: Conway, 1985): 5, 172. )
2. H. D. Pout, “Weapon Direction in the Royal Navy, 1935-45,” n The Applications of Radar and Other Electronic Systems in the Royal navy in World War 2. Ed. F. A. Kingsley, 5-146 (London: Macmillan, 1995), 90ff.
3. “Principles and Practice of Automatic Control, Part 1,” The Engineer, 22 January, 1937, 93–4; Ibid, Part 3, The Engineer, 5 February, 1937, 151; Ibid, Part 4, The Engineer, 12 February 1937, 176–7 Ibid, Part 6, The Engineer, 26 February, 1937, 236–7; ”Principles and Practice of Automatic Control, Part 8,” The Engineer, 12 March 1937, 294–5; Ibid, Part 9, The Engineer, 19 March, 1937, 322–3;
4. O. C. Dannatt, “Discussion on ‘Some Naval Applications’ at the Convention on Automatic Regulation and Servo Mechanisms, 20th May, 1947,” J. Inst. Elec. Eng, 94: IIA (Servos) 1947, 251; W. E. C. Lampert, “Naval Applications of Electrical Remote-Positional Controllers,” Ibid., 236–7; J. Bell, “Data-Transmission Systems,” Ibid., 223–6. H. Gairdner, “Some Servo Mechanisms Used by the Royal Navy,” Ibid, 209–11; A. Porter, “Basic Principles of Automatic Control Systems, in Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng., War Emergency Series 38 (159 ), 26; and A. L. Whiteley, “Theory of Servo Systems, With Particular Reference to Stabilization,” Jour. Inst. Elec. Eng. 93, Series II, Power (1946): 353–6 Hubert M. James, Nathaniel B. Nichols, and Ralph S. Phillips, eds., Theory of Servomechanisms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory Series Volume 27 [New York, Toronto, and London: McGraw-Hill, 1947 Not to put too fine a point about it, but people used to talk about this subject without actually doing the (highly technical and dry and boring, so you can understand why) research.
5. Let's just say that this is in the Components Handbook volume of the "Radar Handbook" series above cited, and that I'm too pressed for time today to figure out why I can't view my PDF through iTunes. Stupid technology stuff. Why do you have to be so hard?
6. Check out my old buddy, Eric Bergerud's The Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific (Boulder: Westview, 2000): 189ff.
7. Geoff J. Kirby, "The History of the Torpedo," Journal of the Royal Navy Scientfic Service, 27, 1 (1972) and ff.; note that this article, which is derivative of a late WWII era article in The Engineer that is currently not readily available, was extended in multiple subsequent installments widely available on the Internet, as well as in semi-plagiarised formats. Download the original here.
*Specifically, Jon argues that the high power 3cm fire control radars installed in the Iowa by 1945 beats the 10cm low-power fire control in Yamato. This is, subject to details of antenna design, true, and would be important in some fights, but not others. The "fact-free" dig comes out of the tendency to discuss fire control solutions absent measures of error in the solution, which are kind of important. It's much easier to get a solution to a problem if you're okay with it being wrong! On the other hand, as someone who kept falling asleep with his eyes open in Dr. Kennedy's numerical analysis course, I'm not going to be the one to point fingers of scorn at the great collectivity of naval technology enthusiasts who can't visualise a polar diagramme of error vectors and pinpoint converging and diverging solutions.
**Which is to say, not the University of British Columbia's attentuated shelves of military technology literature. (Anyone want a deal on surplus 1980s era anti-nuclear screeds? Because earnestness in the service of truth is not necessarily a virtue.)
***By "grotesque," I'm calling out the bulk, cost and unreliability of the electrical drive of the Lexington-class battlecruisers here. We have something of a conflict in the technical literature between writers inspired by GE, who think that electrical drive is awesome (the argument that you will find in the Wikipedia article already linked), and the reality that geared mechanical drives were universally adopted by everyone who could build them, including the United States Navy, beginning just a few years afterwards. The hard fact is that mechanical-mechanical powertrains are inherently more efficient than mechanical-electrical-mechanical. Or used to be, before the awesome technological advances of our more perfect age. (Tip of the hat to Alex!)
****Certain accounts suggest that one of the most shocking things about the public shelter function of the London deep Tube stations during the Blitz was the number of interracial marriages amongst London working class families that it exposed. Indian sailors+lonely provincial girls. Fortunately, careful editing has made this didn`t happen, and we can once again talk about how Cockney slang might be related to the old Lingua Franca without thinking too much about how it might have come to happen.
*****The main safety issue was that the atmosphere was so rich that, if the flasks were penetrated, the steel would catch fire. Seriously.