Sunday, 28 October 2012

Guest post: What the post peak navies could look like

 The last of my twins posts in the naval series.

Often naval ages get named after their primary method of propulsion. The naval age after the Transition could well be called either the Hybrid age or the new age of sail. Warships would most likely have two propulsion methods, similar to those of the SS Savannah. The primary method would be sail used for strategic long distance movement, while the secondary system would be some form of biofuel engine , most likely gas or diesel, for inshore, tactical movement, fast movement and possibly to generate electricity as well. Of these two Gas turbines are probably the more likely choice, biogas has a far simpler production process than biodiesel and Gas turbines are highly effective at fixed high speeds, as well as being already in use for combined systems with diesel to take advantage of this. This efficiency at high speed, the potential to generate electricity from the gas turbines and the simplified fuel production are all advantages, however storage and energy density could be the deciding factor in favor of biodiesel. Biodiesel has far greater energy density than biogas meaning that more energy could be stored on similar sized ships and storage systems.

Several factors in naval war that are no longer present or severely diminished would most likely return. Two of them are fueling stations and armor. Fuelling stations are likely to return as a way to reliably resupply warships with biofuel, allowing their rapid redeployment without exhausting their fuel or against the dominant wind currents and as a way to maintain large stocks of biofuel allowing greater amounts to be accessible when needed than otherwise could be found and allowing ships to fight outside of harvest seasons. The biofuel would likely be produced in small amounts during peacetime and stockpiled for when it’s needed. Armor will likely return as the destructive potential of the weapons decreases allowing it to become effective again, though potentially only as partial armor. The amount of armor used on a warship would have many potentials as there are several variables now added due to the post peak world, in short while more armor gives a ship more survivability it also increases the energy use of the vessel, possibly lowering the acceptable amount of armor significantly below its possible size and coverage.

The naval period that the post peak navies will resemble most would most likely be either the age of Steam and Ironclads, the Big Gun era or WWII Carriers. The reason for this is that cannon technology and explosive shells would almost certainly be viable precluding the use of wooden ships for warfare (commerce is another thing) as explosive shells can easily and rapidly destroy wooden ships. This means that the ships would either have wooden hulls but metal armor (ironclad) or be made out of metal entirely (or other hard materials such as ferrocement). With the addition of turrets if the requisite metal working is possible this would translate into the big gun era and the return of WWI style battleships, or due to the smaller production capabilities, cruisers. Aircraft may however remain viable in a large way and something similar to WWII and modern style navies centered around fleet carriers could remain or return (after the transition), however in a highly altered form.

If the ironclad era returns then the result would be difficult to predict and would depend on the exact technologies that survive. If guns regress to a certain stage, losing much of their penetration capability but heavy armor returns it could lead to extreme difficulty in damaging ships with cannon fire, then the statement by Sir John Colomb “The ram was now the ultimate weapon” (1867) would be accurate but late by several hundred years. Alternatively armor could be of minimal use leading to Monitors (small and slow with large guns) becoming prevalent. Alternatively turrets and large scale metal working could remain and this could lead to a new Big gun era, of fully metal and armored warships with the size of the ship and guns being the primary feature of warships. These and other alternatives exist, especially when other technologies such as torpedoes are considered.

Aircraft, if they remain, are likely to combine both heavier and lighter than air versions. Lighter than air would likely look similar to the Aeromodeller II and could be for cargo and long range scouting. If heavier than air remains it will almost certainly be non jet engine and thus much slower than modern planes and likely with shorter operational range. These aircraft will have several advantages over warships, mainly their height. This height could allow for the use of low powered and low tech missiles to hit surface targets at great range, whereas surface targets couldn’t respond in kind due to the energy requirements of a surface to air missile’s (High density) and the cost required to make guidance systems. Due to fuel constraints however the missiles may not be able to carry sufficient loads to damage warships unless their range is reduced, potentially bring the aircraft in range of reprisal or alternatively the missiles could be slow enough that it is possible to destroy them with AA fire. They would also have smaller payloads and so traditional bombers and dive bombers could return. This could lead to a slightly fluid environment where aircraft could be significant threats to warships but not consistently enough to rely on. Heavier than air aircraft also have the downside of requiring significant amounts of fuel to fly and so would have limited range outside of home territory and only limited capability of projecting them through carriers and island bases. They would also have limited operation times due to limited amounts of fuel, leading to similar problems as seen by Germany during WWII in regards to operations, especially during the later stages of the war, could become common.

Making solid predictions on the potential fate of submarines is made difficult by their complexity. The concept and use of submersibles is old and goes before the wide scale use of fossil fuels, the first military submersible being the Turtle in the American civil war. Their potential use in deep waters and even significantly far from friendly ports however relies on their ability to access a significant amount of technologies and fuel, these technologies include the ability to balance the submarine, maintain pressure and air tightness etc. This could render the submarine a minor part of post peak fleets mainly used to attack known shipping lanes if it remains viable. However subs would have great potential in closed waters (such as the Strait of Malacca or the Mediterranean) especially if the technologies required to combat subs (sonar) is lost or unavailable in the post peak world. Where subs could especially shine could be in their potential as minelayers, especially to lay mines in hostile waters.

Mines will likely become far more common in the post-peak world than they are today. This stems from the fact that they are the most cost effective naval weapons ever invented. With mines costing hundreds of dollars sinking million dollar warships during both world wars, including multiple battleships, and their effectiveness shown during the Russo-Japanese war, the Dardanelles campaign, and Operation Starvation (mining Japanese waters from air). One of the greatest uses of mines is as sea denial weapons; this use has gone back as far as 1855 where a planned British attack on Kronstadt (a very important Russian naval base) was cancelled upon the sighting of mines. The use of mines to deny sea control is effective, even against modern fleets, with a planned naval assault on Wonsan during the Korean War was postponed when two minesweepers were sunk. This caused Rear Admiral Allen E to state, “We have lost control of the seas to a nation without a navy, using pre-World War I weapons, laid by vessels that were utilized at the time of the birth of Christ.” Mines have also sunk the most US warships in the post war period, potentially making them the most effective and cost effective naval weapon in current existence.

One aspect that will shape the post peak naval world regardless of its form is the radical reduction in manufacturing capability and general production ability in the post peak world when compared to any of these ages. This would lead to vastly smaller navies than have historically been fielded as well as different fleet compositions, with higher small to big ship ratios. Construction times for ships would also increase quite drastically, causing naval conflicts to be even more ‘come as you are’ than normal, as even the smaller combatants would take years to build and large ships decades. This would have several other affects, naval tactics and strategies would likely become conservative, in the sense of being cautious, to avoid losing ships irreplaceable over the course of most conflicts. Ship design would also change with a focus on cheap maintenance, long lasting ship hulls, and the use of crew over manufactured items where possible. The first change could likely see indecisive battles similar to the Battle of Jutland become the norm for large scale naval battles. The reduction in manufacturing capability and hence ability to maintain long supply lines and fleets on far distant shores, the ability to recuperate major losses and (potential) removal of major technology gradients could limit the reach of naval empires or make their conquests fleeting and tenuous. Support ships, carrying fuel, ammo and spare parts will likely have minor roles in the post peak world. With limited resources to build and maintain ships they could easily be an unaffordable luxury for many fleets, especially given that ships would not use fuel for long distance movement and would likely stay close to ports. This limited amount of support ships would probably be reflected in warship design, with most warships able to carry significant supplies of food, fuel, ammo and spare parts.
Support ships would still be useful for certain operations, particularly piracy and blockades, potentially they could even be critical for said operations as they would allow ships to stay on station or patrol for longer times, potentially allowing these operations to be carried out by the far smaller fleets.


  1. Hey guys,

    Nice post. I hadn't heard of the SS Savannah before. It has both interesting technology and history too. The steam power could get a ship away from a nasty engagement with pirates in still waters too?

    Never heard of fuelling stations either, but in a strange coincidence, think I may have seen one at the Sunbury railway station yesterday. Possible, but it may also have been a water tower for the original steam locomotives too? Dunno. The Victorian Goldfields Railway run a steam train from Castlemaine V/Line station to Maldon, but it would have originally run Bendigo to Melbourne through Sunbury. The current drivers still have to get accredited hours on the Melbourne to Bendigo run so sometimes you see crusty old diesel engines pulling freight from Bendigo or Castlemaine to pay for the fuel around here! I’m not a trainspotter, but you can’t ignore the beauty of the engineering in the old machines – which still work and are maintained by volunteers. Resilience without even probably realising what they have?

    Wow, the aeromodeller II is a pretty impressive bit of kit and not outside of our current technology. I don't know much about aircraft, but I've read that there really isn't any replacement for jet fuel? At the same time, I remember reading something about the Germans using biofuels in aircraft during WWII. I can't see why an older style air-cooled engine couldn't run biofuels? They really weren't much more complex than a VW beetle air-cooled engine. Speaking of which it was always a long term ambition of mine to get a Purvis Eureka (made in Dandenong of all places). Check it out if you have the time.

    Aussie diesel-electric submarines are pretty lethal bits of kit and have performed well in military games. Didn't know that about mines, but it does make sense. Hope you guys had a chance to check out the HMAS Sydney Wikipedia entry?

    Good luck with your VCE exams too.



  2. The Purvis Eureka looks sleek in regards to the jet engines it should be possible to refine it out of bio fuels, the problem is that jets need lots of fuel, especially the fast ones. Then there's also the plane itself, it takes a lot more high technology to make a jet aircraft that won't shake itself to pieces and this also takes more energy. its possible that jets will remain but in a very limited form as a very rare but very prestigious weapon only used by the richest states.

    The aeromodeller II is impressive and will hopefully take off

    we have as half as many Collins submarines as frigates and this probably says a lot about their effectiveness.

    the effectiveness of mines isn't mentioned much as they are still to an extent seen as "un chivalrous" and "weapons of the weak", aren't very good as an offensive weapon and don't require a lot of highly trained officers, despite this we have 6 minehunters

  3. Aircraft have several routes roads they could take. From the experimental, lighter than air (aeromodeller II) and reverting to older forms. Chances are all will be used depending on each areas situation.

    Subs are nasty because most navies are configured to fight the sea's eqivalent of guerrilla warfare and the difficulty of finding them.

    Thanks, the longest exam is over (english) but sttill got a bit to go.

  4. Hey guys,

    Mines are pretty nasty on both land and at sea. There is something pretty dodgy about a set and forget weapon. I travelled to Cambodia and Laos many years ago and they had no-go zones with warning signs. Still it is the same as the salt water crocodile infested rivers up north. You can't ignore the signs, but I still saw people wading into rivers with the signs - not often, but there were still thrill seekers (or ignorant people) up there.

    I was specifically thinking about the older style aircraft engines that had all of the cylinders arranged in a circle about the crankshaft. They were generally air cooled too and were possibly quite efficient for prop planes. They sort of remind me of a VW beetle air cooled engine (a flat four cylinder, very easy to work on).

    In the states you can buy conversion kits for VW beetles to connect up electric motors to the gear box. Interesting stuff.

    Glad to hear the English exam is over and good luck for the rest of them!