Lessons Learned from an Earlier Age

By Dr. Mark J. Lewis
Painting of the CSS Virginia

U.S. Naval Historical Center photograph

The National Defense Industrial Association has established the Emerging Technologies Institute to help our nation’s leaders understand the importance of investing in key technologies that will enable us to prevail on any future battlefield.

As previous columns have described, history offers notable examples of leaps in military technology that changed the nature of war. One of my favorites is the development of ironclad warships during the Civil War, a story that provides lessons that are directly applicable to our modern era.

In April 1861, after Virginia seceded from the Union, the U.S. Navy evacuated the Norfolk Navy Yard before the ships there could fall into Confederate hands. The steam frigate USS Merrimack was in the yard undergoing repairs following service as flagship of the Pacific Squadron and could not be sailed. Rather than allow the ship to fall into Confederate hands, the Navy decided to set her afire. The Merrimack was also scuttled, so the masts ignited but the hull sank before it could burn. When the Confederates took Norfolk, they assigned Lt. John Mercer Brooke the task of rebuilding the remains of the Merrimack not as a sailing ship, but as an ironclad ram. The 35-year-old Brooke was an excellent choice; the Naval Academy graduate was an accomplished scientist and engineer who had made important discoveries about the ocean floor that ultimately enabled the laying of early undersea telegraph cables.

First lesson: the military services must have the best and brightest technical minds available. The quality of our scientific workforce matters.

It’s also worth stepping back and asking, why did the Merrimack and similar steam-powered ships of her time still have masts with sails in the first place? The answer is that the early steam engines were unreliable, difficult to maintain, and dependent on an unreliable fuel supply. In fact, in the British navy it took the advocacy of one of the Napoleonic era’s foremost sailing captains, Lord Cochrane, to introduce steam power against the objections of many of the naval leaders of his day. Second lesson: sometimes it takes a strong advocate to introduce a new technology; even better if that advocate has established credibility with the previous generation of technology. Modern examples of this include Gen. Bernard Schriever and the Air Force’s ICBM fleet, and Gen. John Jumper who oversaw the addition of weapons to unmanned aircraft.

Back to the Merrimack. In my mind’s eye I always imagine the Confederate forces entering the navy yard and realizing they could repair the damage to the Merrimack, including the masts and yardarms, and add it to their nascent fleet. Someone — perhaps John Mercer Brooke himself — might have said something along the lines of, “Excuse me, it has an engine, why do we even need the sails?” And the ironclad was born.

But the key point is every once in a while there is a technological epiphany, a realization that a previous way of doing something that once made sense is no longer the best solution.

A modern example is the growing acceptance that big, expensive space systems are vulnerable and can be superseded by smaller, less expensive proliferated spacecraft. Arguably, such epiphanies tend to come from individuals who view a problem with a fresh set of eyes, and who are willing to question established wisdom. That’s why, for example, the Space Development Agency was created to deliver defense satellites outside the established pipelines.

This leads to lesson three: question why we do things a certain way, especially for defense technologies that have advanced since the guidelines were first established.

The rest of the Merrimack story is well known. The Confederate navy successfully rebuilt the vessel as the ironclad CSS Virginia, with an array of cannon projecting from small ports in an impenetrable shell mounting a front-facing — and anachronistic — ram. But note that in rebuilding the Merrimack, the Confederate navy undertook a rigorous research-and-development effort, experimenting for example with different iron thicknesses to ascertain the best design.

The results were devastatingly effective; the Virginia was unleashed against the Union blockade fleet off Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862.

Within hours, she had defeated the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress, and would have sunk the USS Minnesota had not her captain run the Minnesota aground out of reach of the Virginia’s weaponry.

Lesson four: it is important to get the research-and-engineering steps right, including developmental test and evaluation.

As a result of the construction of the first ironclads, naval technology was changed forever. In total, the Union and Confederate navies built about 70 ironclads, and the concept propagated rapidly to navies around the world. Just 16 months after the end of the Civil War, the Battle of Lissa between Italy and Austria included no less than 13 ironclads.

Leading to lesson five: military technology spreads quickly. Other nations will watch what we do and how we do it, and adopt it quickly.

For me, the most amazing lesson of the CSS Virginia is that she was technologically superior to anything else afloat for only one day. On her second day of combat, Virginia was confronted by the Union’s more advanced USS Monitor, and the infamous battle of the ironclads ensued. The story of the Monitor’s development is fascinating in its own right. 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 NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute, a non-partisan think tank focused on technologies that are critical to the future of national defense.

Topics: Defense Department

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