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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
I thought it was British.
No, we invented it. Back in the 1930s somebody noticed that when big ships went by on the Potomac River, something happened to the radio. They couldn’t figure out what it was but realized there was a connection. We began working on that and at some point gave it to the British. The British continued to develop it. Of course, they had a real need for it in the Battle of Britain, but it was initially an American invention.
Connecting radar to gun control was a great advance. For antiaircraft fire you have to be able to aim your gun in ways that a human being can’t do. You haye to do it by computer. Radar fire control was invented in World War II. Compared with what we can do now, it would be considered extremely elementary, but it worked.
Now we have Phalanx for very close-in, last-ditch defense. It has two radars: one radar stays on the target coming in and one on the bullets flying out, and there’s a computer in between. The computer makes the target and the bullet radars come together so that the bullets can’t miss; it’s totally automatic. It’s a fantastic thing to see.
What about the proximity fuse?
This was one of the most important developments during World War II, because you didn’t actually have to hit an attacking airplane, you just came within the range and the tiny radar in the nose of the bullet would set it off.
That’s right. Furthermore, if you look at a picture of one of our battleships in 1945, you see that the deck topside is just like a porcupine. She has guns all over the place and radar control to assist. An enemy plane would be met with a million bullets, most with proximity fuses, shooting at them from all directions. As a result, during later stages of the war, ships were able to strike back at aircraft. As I said, during the Pearl Harbor attack, there was just no way the ships could shoot back. A ship might have had five or six antiaircraft guns on board and a couple of machine guns. It was pathetic. Now things are very different. I’ve just been on board the Ticonderoga , our first Aegis-equipped cruiser on a trial trip. She’s the most fantastic thing to watch—the ship is a mass of computers, seventeen in all, of some exotic type, the UYK-7. The sailors, of course, call it the “YUK-7. ” It’s fixed up so it can be worked automatically. You can put that ship out in the middle of the ocean and set it on automatic. If a missile is fired at it, it will suddenly spring to life and shoot back before the missile gets there.
It’s the damnedest thing you ever saw. I think this will really change the future of surface ships. You see, there was a time when surface ships were top dog. And then, right after Pearl Harbor, they were downgraded and they have been downgraded throughout our lifetimes, but now they can shoot back, accurately and automatically, in real time. You can put a lot more radar on a ship than you can in an airplane; you can put many more computers on a ship than you can on an airplane. Furthermore, a ship sits in the middle of the ocean, which means there’s a lot of so-called radar clutter interfering with the radar that’s trying to detect it. Therefore, nowadays, it’s easier to shoot at an airplane than it is for an airplane to shoot at a ship. The poor little airplane comes in and whap —he’s knocked out before he can even turn around. So he can’t come in. What he’s got to do is fire a missile. That’s what they’re doing- firing the missiles at long range and high speed—but the ships can knock out the missiles too.
Our World War II subs had about a thousand horsepower submerged. Now you can have thirty thousand. And all of a sudden it’s more like driving an airplane.
Has there been a change in the Navti’s mission since World War II?
The mission of the Navy, initially, was to serve as our first line of defense—to deal with an invader who had to cross the ocean. An invader still has to cross either the Atlantic, Pacific, or Arctic oceans. Of course, you’re not going to have an invading army. If anyone is going to attack the United States, it will be with missiles and airplanes. So the mission of the Navy hasn’t changed at all. What if we had the worst possible case—I guess that would have to be defined as a surprise nuclear attack by Russia—how do their warheads come at us? Will they fly across the ocean or jump out of the ocean? No matter how they get here, they will have to come from, or over, the ocean. Our Navy will be out there and ready. It strikes me that the broadest definition of the Navy’s mission would be to confine the war to the oceans. If we have to fight a nuclear war, it would be better to fight it over the ocean than over the land. So the Navy is again our first line of defense. It’s a totally different context, but still it’s the same mission—to keep the fighting away from our shores.
Wouldn’t this require a totally different type of Navy from the one we have if we’re going to be fighting over the sea, rather than some other type of war?