Saturday, December 26, 2020

Jeffersonian Gunboats

Here’s an interesting topic that was suggested during the last open comment post and I thank the anonymous reader for the idea.  I encourage anonymous readers to include a username with their comment.  No need to formally establish a sign-in ID but a name at the end of a comment allows me to give credit! 



In the very early 1800’s, President Thomas Jefferson was faced with an aggressive British movement against American merchant shipping. 


From 1800 to 1805, fifty-nine American merchant ships had fallen captive to Britain; from 1805 through 1807, four hundred and sixty-nine ships, or approximately half the merchant fleet, fell into British hands. (1)


In 1807 alone, the British impressment of American sailors resulted in the loss of 6,000 men.(1)


Jefferson’s solution was to abandon any offensive action against the British and instead to fall back on a home waters defensive force.  He recognized that the US could not take on the might of the British navy and he opted, instead, for a defensive force of small gunboats.  The specific means of defense that he chose was a fleet of small gunboats designed for coastal defense and for use on the western rivers and lakes.  Later, several served in the Mediterranean and other areas outside the US home waters.


First authorized in 1803, a couple of hundred gunboats were built in many port cities until at least as late as 1811.  The gunboats were 50-75 ft long, 18 ft wide, shallow draft, variously rigged, and could sail under wind or oar.  Armament consisted of two or three 18-24 pound swivel mounted guns or 32 pound traversing guns.(1)


Jefferson Gunboat Model - Note cannon in bow and two offset
cannon amidships, one to port and one to starboard

Jefferson’s gunboat concept was based, in part, on the effectiveness of gunboats in the defense of Tripoli.(1)  In his letter to Congress, Jefferson cites evidence of the effectiveness of gunboats using historical and contemporary examples:


Algiers is particulary known to have owed to a great provision of these vessels the safety of its city since the epoch of their construction. Before that it had been repeatedly insulted and injured. The effect of gunboats at present In the neighborhood of Gibraltar is well known, and how much they were used both in the attack and defense of that place during a former war. The extensive resort to them by the two greatest naval powers in the world on an enterprise of invasion not long since in prospect shews their confidence in their efficacy for the purposes for which they are suited. By the northern powers of Europe, whose seas are particularly adapted to them, they are still more used. The remarkable action between the Russian flotilla of gunboats and galleys and a Turkish fleet of ships of the line and frigates in the Uman Sea in 1788 Will be readily recollected. The latter, commanded by their most celebrated admiral, were completely defeated, and several of their ships of the line destroyed. (2)


The Mariner’s Museum provides an explanation of the general theory about the gunboats.


Jefferson and other Republicans knew that gunboats posed no threat to the British navy and thus would not provoke a preemptive strike. Gunboats could be distributed to many American ports and provide defense to a larger territory for less money than a frigate navy. Jefferson envisioned gunboats used in conjunction with land batteries, movable fortifications, and floating batteries to repulse attacks. (1)


Jefferson, himself, explained his theory about gunboats in a Feb 10, 1807 letter to Congress:


Under present circumstances, and governed by the intentions of the Legislature as manifested by their annual appropriations of money for the purposes of defense, it has been concluded to combine, first, land batteries furnished with heavy cannon and mortars, and established on all the points around the place favorable for preventing vessels from lying before it; second, movable artillery, which may be carried, as occasion may require, to points unprovided with fixed batteries; third, floating batteries, and fourth, gunboats which may oppose an enemy at his entrance and cooperate with the batteries for his expulsion. (2)


Thus, the gunboats, individually weak as naval vessels, were intended to operate as part of a combined (we would call it joint) defense utilizing land fortifications and artillery.


The Museum also offers thoughts on the weaknesses of the concept.


A passive defense was useless against an invader with a strong navy like Britain. One frigate had the gun power of forty gunboats, and with their thin planking and low decks exposed to gunfire, gunboats stood little chance of survival. Invasion points were never known, and the few gunboats stationed at various American ports could provide only minimal defense.  Furthermore, a gunboat was useless at sea and thus could not defend U.S. commerce. (1)


Jefferson acknowledges the limitations of the gunboats in his letter:


It must be supenduous to observe that this species of naval armament is proposed merely for defensive operation; that it can have but little effect toward protecting our commerce in the open seas, even on our own coast; and still less can it become an excitement to engage in offensive maritime war, toward which it would furnish no means. (2)


Cost was also an issue.  Congress authorized 25 gunboats in 1805, 50 in 1806, and 188 in 1807 with construction occurring at ports all around the country.(1)


First estimates put a gunboat's cost at $5,000; in actuality, costs totaled over $10,000. (1)


Apparently, the Navy had difficulty estimating costs even back then!


One of the consequences of the gunboat program was a cessation of major naval construction which left the nation ill-prepared for the War of 1812.  In 1809, Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, began to remove the gunboats from active service and by the end of 1811 only 63 gunboats remained in service.


Jefferson's theory of naval defense would lead to the loss of much of the naval strength the United States had gained since the Barbary War of 1805, leaving the nation with an inadequate naval force when it needed it most. (1)


The Mariner’s Museum sums up the situation at the start of the War of 1812 quite nicely:


The U.S. Navy had seven frigates, four schooners, four ketches, and 170 gunboats to pit against the greatest naval power the world had ever seen. (1)





So, what can we learn from Jefferson’s gunboat program?  Some of the similarities to today’s currently vogue concepts are remarkable.  Here are some noteworthy points of consideration:


Distributed Lethality – Each gunboat carried 2-3 guns which epitomizes the modern US Navy concept of distributed lethality.  A 40 gun frigate or 100 gun ship of the line was, essentially, broken down into 20-50 individual ships each carrying a couple of guns.  The problem, as noted by the Mariner’s Museum description, is that the individual gunboats, while carrying a weapon equal to a frigate or ship of the line, was an incredibly weak, non-survivable vessel.  Thinly and weakly built, with no ‘armor’ (meaning thick protective strakes of wood on the hull), the vessels were easy kills and would be lucky to get off a single shot in combat.  They might be useful as peacetime patrol vessels but they were utterly useless in high end combat.  Jefferson built a navy that could not fight.


Today, we are headed down the same path of building small, individually weak vessels that are incapable of contributing to high end combat.  Replacing Burkes with small, weak, unmanned vessels is a repeat of Jefferson’s concept with the same attendant flaws.


It should be noted, however, that the gunboat concept did not call for the gunboats to operate as standalone naval forces but, rather, as one aspect of a multi-faceted defense that relied on combined land-sea forces.  In other words, the gunboats were intended to operate under the close protection and cooperation of a heavy land artillery force.  In contrast, the US Navy’s distributed lethality concept has the individual vessels operating in enemy controlled or contested waters with no other support.  This glaring difference, alone, should give pause to the US Navy’s proponents of distributed lethality and force a consideration of where and how our individual ships will be supported and, if they cannot be supported, why we are exposing them, individually to certain loss.  Simply using the word ‘lethality’ in the phrase ‘distributed lethality’ does not actually make it lethal any more than the word ‘combat’ in ‘Littoral Combat Ship’ makes the LCS a warship.


Massing – One of the foundations of modern military theory is the massing of localized force (conceptually accomplished by maneuver) to achieve victory even against overall superior forces.  In contrast, Jefferson’s gunboat concept scattered the gunboat force all over the coastal US, preventing any massing of force.  Any enemy attack would, by definition, be met by only a small fraction of the total force and would be inadequate for defense against all but the smallest of enemy forces.  This automatically granted the enemy the achievement of localized mass and assured their victory.  The gunboats would be subject to defeat in detail against any enemy that wished to make the effort.  Similarly, our distributed lethality concept, our push for disaggregated ARG/MEUs, and our trend towards scattered unmanned vessels exposes our entire force to defeat in detail.  Just as naval leaders in WWII recognized the value of massing of ships (convoys, task forces, escorts) for mutual defense, so too, should we recognize that same value and yet we’re knowingly proceeding in the opposite direction.  We are scattering our naval force like a Jeffersonian gunboat fleet.


Combat Resilience – Throughout history, naval warfare has been characterized by the ability of ships to stand and fight.  Damage is absorbed while the ship continues to fight effectively until the enemy is subdued.  In the age of sail, ships were generally not sunk but were, instead, slowly pounded into submission.  This required the ships to be able to maintain constant volleys while absorbing constant damage.  In WWII, the same behavior occurred.  As an example, the naval battles of Guadalcanal saw Japanese and American ships absorb dozens or hundreds of shell hits while maintaining effective fire of their own.


Gunboats, as we have noted, had absolutely no ability to absorb damage.  They were completely unable to stand and fight.  One or two hits and the gunboats would be mission killed, if not destroyed.


Today, we’re building ships that are actually designed to be abandoned at the first hit (LCS, LAW, and, by virtue of its minimal crew, the Zumwalt).  This is not combat-effective and represents very poor combat value for the money.


Armament – The gunboats were the epitome of heavy but extremely limited armament.  Most gunboats had 2-3 guns which were, as individual guns, considered heavy armament, equal to a frigate or ship of the line.  However, as a fighting unit, the gunboats were very weakly armed with, as noted, only 2-3 guns.  Thus, a single gunboat was, essentially, combat-useless.  It was capable of successfully engaging only weaker armed ships which, from a naval perspective, meant that it had no use in naval combat.  Only if operating in massed squadrons – what we would refer to as a swarm, today – could they apply enough collective firepower to have a chance to be effective.  Unfortunately, being scattered across dozens/hundreds of port locations, they had no chance to ever mass.


As an example of the typical armanent, gunboat #5 carried, at various times (3):


1805:  2x 32-pounder guns

1812:  1x 24-pounder + 2x 6-pounder

1813:  1x 24-pounder + 4x 6-pounder

1814:  1x 24-pounder + 4x 12-pounder


This is exactly the situation the Navy is creating with the LCS, each of which will be armed with 4-8 Naval Strike Missiles as its entire anti-ship weaponry.  Thus, a single LCS is capable of successfully engaging only corvette size ships or smaller, if even that.  An LCS’ 4-8 anti-ship missiles constitute no threat to, say, a Chinese 052 or 055 Burke-type destroyer.


This should also serve as a warning to the Navy about their plans to arm amphibious and logistics ships.  A very limited capability of 4-8 missiles offers no useful combat capability.





As noted, the parallels between Jefferson’s gunboat concept and today’s distributed lethality concept are striking and today’s concept contains all the same flaws as the gunboat concept.  History constantly screams its lessons at us and we resolutely cover our ears and refuse to listen.  History has judged the gunboat program an abject failure and yet we seem determined to repeat it. 


The one theoretical strength of the gunboat concept was its link with land based fortifications and artillery.  Thus, the gunboats and the land fortifications were intended to operate as a single defensive entity.  This emphasizes two aspects of the program:  the ‘joint’ nature of the concept and the purely defensive nature.  Our modern distributed lethality concept abandons both of those aspects by operating the individual ships without support and in an offensive role which, by definition, places them forward, in higher risk situations.


If we are determined to repeat the gunboat concept, we need to study the gunboat program and explain how/why our version will succeed gloriously despite containing all the same flaws (and none of the few strengths!) as Jefferson’s program.







(1)The Mariner’s Museum website, “Jefferson’s Gunboat Navy”, retrieved 12-Dec-2020,


(2)History Central website,




  1. LCS looks like Ukrainian missile boat concepts. It's a failure.

  2. What strikes me is the appearance that past and today, we were trying to accomplish the mission but didn't want to do the hard work or spend the money so in both cases we went for some kind of cheap "gimmick" to save a few bucks....

  3. I don't understand how distributed lethality can work in a wartime, jamming environment. Sharing information seems to be a critical part of the puzzle, and I have serious reservations about how well that works if the bad guys don't want it to work.

    As far as distributed lethality, if there's not enough lethality, how does it work. A bunch of fly swatters may be distributed lethality to a bunch of flies, but not to a bunch of enemy personnel and equipment.

    There are missions where gunboats can be effective. But they need serious weapons. And meeting a peer enemy fleet is not one of those missions.

    1. "And meeting a peer enemy fleet is not one of those missions."

      That's not necessarily true, IF EXECUTED PROPERLY. For example, the Chinese 'gunboat' fleet (80 Type 022 missile boats, alone) may be effective in war because they're a defensive fleet, MASSED in their home waters, with land based support from aircraft, missiles, and sensors as well as other naval forces. In other words, they embrace all the positive aspects of the Jefferson gunboats. The US Navy distributed lethality concept, in contrast, embraces all the WORST aspects of the gunboat concept.

    2. "I don't understand how distributed lethality can work in a wartime, jamming environment."

      Networking, which is what I assume you're actually referring to, is critical, no doubt. However, even more critical is sensors. Even a perfectly functioning, 100% reliable network is useless if we don't have survivable, penetrating sensors to provide the data for the network to distribute - and we don't.

    3. "...the Chinese 'gunboat' fleet (80 Type 022 missile boats, alone) may be effective in war because they're a defensive fleet, MASSED in their home waters, with land based support from aircraft, missiles, and sensors as well as other naval forces."

      Key word being DEFENSIVE operations, then it works, Im trying to think if there has been any world wide historical precedent where it works on the OFFENSE? Probably not since you are basically tied to your land forces/air cover and can't stray to far away...

    4. "That's not necessarily true, IF EXECUTED PROPERLY. For example, the Chinese 'gunboat' fleet (80 Type 022 missile boats, alone) may be effective in war because they're a defensive fleet, MASSED in their home waters, with land based support from aircraft, missiles, and sensors as well as other naval forces. In other words, they embrace all the positive aspects of the Jefferson gunboats. The US Navy distributed lethality concept, in contrast, embraces all the WORST aspects of the gunboat concept."


      Jefferson didn't say "Hey, let's throw those gunboats at London, that's going to defeat the Royal Navy on their home turf!"

    5. Interesting that after building a sizeable number, the concept of massing them wasnt embraced. Also, the idea of using them as coastal pickets, in order to try to give the opportunity to mass them seems to have been overlooked. Sure, they were facing the most capable Navy on the planet, but in parallel, I wouldnt give good odds for a half- or even a dozen Burkes vs a massed Iranian small boat (they have literally thousands!!) attack... In the right application, the quantity vs quality argument has merit!!

    6. Of course I understand that the Iranian sinking an American squadron of ships would be a tactical victory, but a strategic blunder tantamount to national suicide. And that may have been the case back then as well, although our recent Independence and the events of 1812 suggest otherwise.
      But it is interesting to find so many parallels in current thinking (of many countries) with history...

    7. "Interesting that after building a sizeable number, the concept of massing them wasnt embraced."

      Massing wasn't possible. The British could have struck at any US port, anywhere. How could the gunboats have been massed to defend an unknown target? The entire concept precluded massing.

      Also, bear in mind that massing was not part of the concept. The concept was a COMBINED sea-land defense utilizing the fortifications and artillery. This combination was felt to be the key. The gunboats could have harassed the British fleet and then retreated to cover under the guns of the fort(s). There are flaws in that but that was the concept.

      "I wouldnt give good odds for a half- or even a dozen Burkes vs a massed Iranian small boat"

      That would be playing right into the strength of the gunboat concept: attacking into a massed gunboat swarm operating under and with the support of land based defenses. The would be the height of stupidity on our part. An intelligent naval leader would attack and eliminate the land support defenses and then apply air power against the swarm boats which have no defense, at all, against air attack.

      We all have a tendency to think in one vs one terms: a swarm vs a Burke, for example, and that's not how any intelligent naval leader would conduct an operation - not that I give the Navy much credit for being operationally intelligent.

    8. One example of real distributed lethality was China's fires of two missiles - one DF-21D and one DF-26. They were fired about one thousand miles apart and hit a target boat in the South China Sea roughly at the same time.

      This was confirmed by US Indo-Pacific Commander Philip Davidson early December as he expressed his worry.

      Most difficult part for this is to precisely locate a ship thousands miles away. Satellite can only give approximate location. Whether China used its WJ-8 ultra high speed drone or not is still unknown. Radars in missile have limited range.

    9. "That would be playing right into the strength of the gunboat concept..."
      Of course... I wasnt implying it as anything realistic, just using the Iranian scenario of "big powerful ships vs lesser vessels in numbers" as a modern equivalent.
      I understand the concept of the gunboats working basically under cover of shore guns. But with hundreds built, how many potential ports would be viable Brit targets?? It seems that the major ports could have 40? 50? Versus how many British fleet units?? Seems like some kind of massed attack should have been possible. But, Guess I hafta go do some more reading n research....

    10. "fired about one thousand miles apart and hit a target boat"

      Until someone demonstrates a practical and combat effective means of detecting and tracking a naval target a thousand+ miles away, I remain utterly unconcerned with anti-ship ballistic missiles.

      I have no doubt, whatsoever, that the exercise was a carefully managed, staged, and artificially enhanced demonstration, just as the US Navy routinely does for its exercises.

    11. "But with hundreds built, how many potential ports would be viable Brit targets?? It seems that the major ports could have 40? 50?"

      Do the arithmetic. We built around 200 gunboats. At 40-50 per port, we could protect 4-5 ports. How many strategically important ports were there along the US coast at that time? Several dozen or more? Remember, to be strategically important doesn't necessarily mean it has to the capital city of the US. An out of the port several miles from the capital could serve as a strategically important location from which to land troops at leisure who then march on the capital. Or, simply entering dozens of ports, one by one, and sinking all the merchant ships and moving on would cripple commerce. And so on. Which 4-5 ports are you going to defend?

    12. The Chinese high speed high attitude drone is WZ-8, not WJ-8.

    13. "The Chinese high speed high attitude drone is WZ-8, not WJ-8."

      One interesting speculation I noted was that the WZ-8 is not an actual surveillance drone but is just a supersonic target drone. The main argument for that is that the small body does not allow for much in the way of sensors or sensor power. In other words, it would be very fast but have a very limited field of view. There is also the issue of sensor interference from the skin friction. Add to that the lack of obvious sensor antennae and it makes a plausible argument.

      That also leads to the question, can a near hyper-sonic drone be an effective sensor platform?

      As I said, just interesting speculation. I have no knowledge or even opinion about what the WZ-8 is or how effective it might be.

  4. The gunboats and the LCSes have one more thing in common.

    They'd both make for good fire-ships.

    1. That might make a good post. How to make fire ships a viable tactic today.

  5. Missiles are major weapons used in today's naval battle. They can be launched by boats, submarines, and aircrafts from carriers.

    Small boats have a key problem, they cannot fire missile under strong waves as vibrations could cause damages to the ship.

    Today, small boats can be spotted and attacked by fighter jets easily. They don't have chance to go near any aircraft carriers to launch their missiles, not to mention, the launch is weather dependent.

  6. You have to wonder whether small coastal missile boats have any significant advantage over truck-based systems on land now, especially given the much higher costs. 200 years ago, the extra few miles range made a difference but not now.

    1. You raise an excellent question. What's different is the ranges. Where a sailing gunboat would operate just beyond the range of land artillery - extending the range of the land artillery, in a sense - a modern gunboat would do the same but the ranges would be greatly expanded. Instead of operating a ranges of hundreds of yards, today's 'gunboats' would operate at ranges of hundreds of miles to extend the land missile ranges, in a sense.

      The gunboat's job was to fight the periphery, pick of stragglers, and herd the enemy into the fort's artillery. Today's missile 'gunboats' would do the same, just a greatly expanded ranges.

      I'm not saying I endorse the concept, I'm just offering the explanation of the theory, as I see it.

  7. "...In other words, the gunboats were intended to operate under the close protection and cooperation of a heavy land artillery force. In contrast, the US Navy’s distributed lethality concept has the individual vessels operating in enemy controlled or contested waters with no other support..."

    From all the sources I have read, it shows that the Navy envisioned an overarching battle network with UAVs and surface ships as nodes, reinforcing and supporting each other through the use of forward deployed sensors platform. Now whether this is achievable is debatable (who I am kidding? Of course it doesn't), I have to recognize that the Navy is working towards an integrated defense, similar to that of the Russian layered defense concept. It seems that the Navy is emphasizing integration and support, not deemphasizing it.

    I will have to refer to this article from CIMSEC to illustrate a brief analysis of the DMO concept,

    "First and foremost, in order to be fully realized, it is essential that Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) have nodes which are able to control the widely dispersed forces elemental to the system. All of these units must be stitched together by what may be thought of as a Battle Force Manager (BFM) resident in the many and varied (potential) command nodes."

    "...the first requirement is the ability to ensure the composition of a single, commonly held and fully integrated picture of the battlespace, encompassing air, surface and subsurface domains, from the seabed to space, a true cross domain picture. Every node in the grid must possess a real-time, fire control quality picture, whether at the tactical or operational level, and this picture must be identical in every way to every other unit’s picture.."

    I am genuinely curious how you come to that conclusion. Am I missing something? Are you mistakenly referring to the USMC EABO concept?

    1. "I am genuinely curious how you come to that conclusion."

      What conclusion? About what? I'm not sure what you're asking?

      I suspect you've answered your own question. The Navy distributed lethality concept is perfectly workable IF all the underlying assumptions work flawlessly.

      I have a vision of a Navy fleet of two dozen combat canoes sinking the entire Chinese navy. They'll cross the ocean in a matter of hours, instantly locate all the enemy ships, approach undetected, attach 10,000 lb bombs to each ship, retreat a safe distance, and trigger them. The concept is perfectly workable IF my assumptions about speed, detection, weapons, etc. are valid. Of course, they aren't. They're fantasy.

      The Navy's DL concept is perfectly workable IF their assumptions are valid. Of course, they aren't. They're fantasy.

      I've detailed the multiple flaws in the DL concept in multiple posts and comments. Feel free to review the archives.

      If that didn't address your question, then ask again but be a bit more specific.

    2. You said: "In contrast, the US Navy’s distributed lethality concept has the individual vessels operating in enemy controlled or contested waters with no other support.". Is this comment referring to the realistic aspect of the concept or the concept itself?

      Your comment make it seems like that you concluded that this is unrealistic and thus must "force a consideration of where and how our individual ships will be supported and, if they cannot be supported, why we are exposing them, individually to certain loss. " The distinction here is a little bit important because you make it clear that the current concept completely differs from the Jeffersonian gunboats concept which I find to be incorrect. I see a CEC-enabled ships with UAVS and F-35s which is exactly like the support aspect of a heavy land artillery force. You might be seeing something that I am not seeing here, the question is am I missing it?

    3. "Is this comment referring to the realistic aspect of the concept or the concept itself?"

      You've got it. It's an evaluation of the degree of realism of the underlying assumptions - which are pure fantasy.

      Ask yourself, which of the fundamental underlying assumptions have any chance, whatsoever, of working?

    4. Ah I see, I just wanted to make sure I am getting it correctly. The bigger problem as I see it is that Jefferson recognized that his gunboats are clearly not viable warfighting combatants and serve more as a delay. Of course, we can debate the validity of that concept but he is being realistic with his idea which is very important. Any ideas will always have a disconnect between planning and execution. The Navy, on the other hand, truly believe that they could achieve their vision and seems to make no adjustments for everything in between.

      I was just hoping from your comment to see that the Navy may have realized the unrealistic nature of the idea. Maybe I have unrealistic expectation for the Navy.

      That said, I think there are some assumptions that may work out. The UAVs seems to be quite capable and I think they could realistically survive if we can continuously provide escorts. NIFC-CA seems to be going a step too far but local groups of CEC-enabled ships could still function as nodes in the concept. The idea of arming every ships that has the most realistic chance of working is the most useless one as well. Who in their right mind would consider risking logistics forces and AAS to fire a few missiles?

    5. "The UAVs seems to be quite capable and I think they could realistically survive if we can continuously provide escorts."

      This may be the most flawed assumption. UAVs have zero chance of surviving over a battlefield. That's been demonstrated in the Middle East, repeatedly. There's video on YouTube of UAV shootdowns. Just a bit ago, an Air Force general said exactly that and that the AF wanted to move away from battlefield UAV surveillance because they weren't survivable. No amount of escorts will save a slow, non-stealthy, non-maneuvering UAV. Just out of curiosity, where would these escorts come from? The whole idea of distributed lethality is to place the ships deep inside enemy waters where, almost by definition, there won't be any escorts available.

    6. For its current function of battlefield reconnaissance? Maybe, I see it as something that happens less often than what the Navy vision. I also think that we can afford to pull them back in second-line and it can continue gather information, similarly to SIGNIT aircraft? Of course, this also means altering the original Navy concept to have a survival rate.

      On the other hand, I also assess the concept against what it should be, a small maneuverable and stealthy sensor platform. In this configuration, it could still work but unlikely critical and make any major difference. My original sentence is more towards the secondary functions, less than the first one.

      You ask, where would these escorts come from? It's my understanding that the Navy has struck a deal with the Air Force to provide these escorts as the UAV itself flies from these bases? If this isn't the case, perhaps the escorts could come from carriers?

      Perhaps I am also in a little bit denial here and handwaving most of its critical issues. But that's my thought on something that could work, however poorly it may perform.

  8. For distributed lethality to have a chance to work, it seems to me that your distributed nodes must have:

    - lethality - the ability to deliver a lethal blow
    - sensors - that will detect the enemy before he detects you
    - communication - that will link all these nodes seamlessly and efficiently in an enemy jamming environment
    - survivability - the ability to take a hit and stay alive, at least long enough to perform the other pieces

    I don't see how in the world it can work.

    1. Furthermore, the communication aspects of the concept seems overly complicated. This is just a snippet taken from the CNO (Not this one!!!)'s "A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0".

      A tactical grid to connect distributed nodes.
      Data storage, processing power, and technology stacks at the nodes.
      An overarching data strategy.
      Analytic tools such as artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and services that support fast, sound decisions.

      Ignoring the non-existent nature of every technology that they are referring here. Does this seems to be silent in the electromagnetic spectrum at all?

    2. The Navy stopped caring about EMCON, so I doubt they mind.

      Of course, that's monumentally stupid of them, also known as "business as usual".

  9. If such gunboats were diesel-electric they would prove very lethal, as explained here:

  10. The concept of Distributed Lethality is not something new. Look at the WWII Navy, just about everything from landing craft to batteships were armed (and oftened armored) with weapons suited to their size and function. Landing craft were armed with machine guns to provide suppressive fire for their dismounting infantry. PT boats were armed with heavier machine guns and light cannons. And, with 4 torpedoes, PT boats could punch far above their weight. Some ships like the Flower and Fletcher-classes were heavily armed for their size and displacement.

    Every Navy warship from patrol boat on up should be armed with antiship missiles. Aside from the Type 22 missile boats, China has 44 Type 56 corvettes (1,500 ton displacement) each armed with 4 antiship missiles. Taiwan's Tuo Chaing patrol boats (600 tons) are equipped 8 Harpoon-like antiship missiles plus 8 medium-range supersonic antiship missiles. And, Russia is building multiple classes of small boats equipped with antiship missiles and SAMs. As they say, this isn't rocket science.

    1. Distributed lethality isn't about mounting weapons on every available platform. That's just arming.

      Distributed lethality is about widely and physically distributing those platforms so as to complicate the enemy's operational challenge (at least, that's the theory).

  11. CNO, I'm the anonymous poster that suggested the connection between the modern idea of distributed lethality and the Jeffersonian gunboats. (I'm also the poster that laid out the weapons idea for the modern Des Moines cruiser, if you recall that a while back)

    Thanks for looking into this gunboat idea, I really enjoyed the analysis you did. Another high quality effort to add to the blog's impressive content.

    As I was reading your post I thought of another comparison.
    The proponents of the gunboats expected an adversary to fight in a particular way which would give the advantage to the gunboats, and when they didn't do that the gunboats were practically useless.

    Instead of charging into American harbors to bombard the ports, thus giving the gunboats the chance to attack their ships in mass in calm waters, the enemy could just attack our merchant shipping at sea. They even would become so brazen as to sit in our coastal waters just outside the ports to nab any merchant ships that dared to try and escape.

    The proponents of distributed lethality also seem to expect the enemy to play into our hands. That seems unlikely as we need to assume the enemy will be as clever and resourceful as we are.

    The fledgling United States squandered about $1.5 on the gunboats. It was a total waste of money.

    The decision to go with the gunboats prevented the navy-minded Federalists from being able to expand the strength of the navy. According to Wiki, the USS Constitution cost approximately $300k to construct. At that price, five of the 44-gun frigates could have been built instead of the gunboat program.

    In Ian W. Toll's superb "Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy" he mentions that when one of the Norfolk gunboats capsized and sank in six fathoms of water Stephen Decatur asked one of his fellow officers, "What would be the real national loss if all gunboats were sunk in a hundred fathoms of water?"

    During that era the U.S. would save the high cost of manning the ships during times of peace by literally putting them in drydock. This afforded the navy a chance to have surge capacity during times of conflict.

    During the War of 1812 the navy outfitted the frigates and got them to sea before the British blockade set in. Instead of doing the traditional navy jobs of defending the ports or escorting merchant ships, the navy sent its small number of highly capable frigates on merchant-raiding missions.

    Because the ships were very capable, they gave the navy the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. And the frigates were extremely successful, winning battles against British frigates due to their strength, firepower, and the quality of their crews and leadership.

    Insurance rates soared for British merchantmen and the besting of the American frigates became a national obsession.
    Just imagine what that would have looked like had the navy been able to put 8 or 9 of those 44-gun frigates to sea in 1812!

    I think the lesson for the navy is that they need to build high quality ships they can both dish out damage and take it, and manned by high quality well-trained crews. Not gimmicks like distributed lethality and AI.

    Thanks CNO for this great blog. I always look forward to your new posts.


    1. I forgot to mention that the navy had only three 44-gun frigates; the USS Constitution, USS President, and USS United States.

    2. Oops, a bit of sloppy writing there....they squandered $1.5 MILLION. The $1.5 that I misstated there would actually have been about the right amount for the gun boat program.


    3. "Insurance rates soared for British merchantmen and the besting of the American frigates became a national obsession."

      Couple thoughts.

      I would recommend

      "Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812-1815" By Dudley.

      Yes the single frigate duel defeats a couple of sorties were a shock (to the UK), but the RN did more less lock the USN into port effectively (although of course that did free up men and material to win the vital battle on the lakes). It was more the capacity of the US to produce a vast amount of privateers that drove up insurance rates.

      Which I think highlights a different question rather than a vast standing navy of X number of ships (but with underfunded maintenance and training) perhaps a smaller effective navy backed by more investment in the shipping industry, infrastructure, education etc. Might be better. After all the more you buy now based on limited information locks into what not be optimal solutions.

    4. The Royal Navy of the time was enormous, but it also had enormous responsibilities.

      As you implied, the single frigate victories were mere pinpricks to their overall strength.

      But after those shocking defeats, the mere presence of the high quality American frigates demanded a disproportionate response by the Brits. (An 18th century version of the British pursuit of the Bismarck, or to a lesser amount, the Graf Spee during the early part of WW2 as an illustration).

      The Royal Navy's focus on the American frigates allowed American privateers a free hand to do the bulk of the damage to the British merchant marine, which is what drove up the insurance rates.

      Eventually the Royal Navy was able to trap the small number of American frigates in port and bottle them up.
      But if there existed 8-10 of the superior American 44-gun frigates roaming the seas like wolves, it is likely that the RN's Atlantic squadrons wouldn't have been able to commit the resources to effectively blockading the American ports.

      Had the US not committed such a large amount of national treasure on the tactically and strategically misguided distributed lethality of the Jeffersonian gunboats, they could have instead invested in high quality ships that had the flexibility to perform more types of missions than the single purpose gunboats.

    5. "Which I think highlights a different question rather than a vast standing navy of X number of ships (but with underfunded maintenance and training) perhaps a smaller effective navy backed by more investment in the shipping industry, infrastructure, education etc. Might be better. After all the more you buy now based on limited information locks into what not be optimal solutions."

      I think that there is a solid logic behind what you are saying. Don't overly commit to armored cruisers in 1900 and then have no resources to build dreadnoughts after 1906.

      But the pitfall is that the lead time for building naval ships is long. A conflict with China would probably be lost before the new navy could be constructed.
      Also, a strong navy can be used to prevent a future conflict with China but confronting the PLAN and reassuring regional allies of our commitment and reliability.

      One thing I strongly agree with is that we need to bring merchant shipping construction back to this country.

      Lutefisk (and the previous post I forgot to sign)

    6. "perhaps a smaller effective navy backed by more investment in the shipping industry"

      That's an interesting idea. In concept, I like it. In reality, any savings from a smaller navy would, undoubtedly, go towards more social programs rather than strengthening the shipbuilding industry. So, we'd wind up with a smaller navy AND the same weak shipbuilding industry we have now.

      Still, the concept is worth some thought to see if someone can come up with a way to ensure the above scenario does not happen.

      Also, if one reduces the navy, what will the new and improved shipbuilding industry build, assuming you could avoid the above scenario?

  12. Small boats cannot go too far from shore. They also cannot sail on rough weather condition. Worse, if weather is not bad enough for them to sail, it may be worse enough to prevent them from firing missiles due to safety.

    Lack of money 20 years ago, China entertained the idea of massive small fast missile boats. Type 022 was the product. It though to have many to approach a large enemy ship then fire missiles. After tests in exercises, they found this goal was impossible to achieve.

    Since first type 022 had been built in 2004, in 2009, China halted its production. Today, we rarely hear China mentions type 022. If you look its spec., you might think that it is an impressive small missile boats but in reality have limited usefulness.

    As money is no longer a problem, China then has started building ~1,300T type 056 (056a) corvettes to replace them.

    1. "Small boats cannot go too far from shore. They also cannot sail on rough weather condition."

      Of course they can. Commercial small fishing vessels routinely sail in extremely rough weather. The Navy's Sea Hunter, which is a modified catamaran style, is rated up to sea state 7. The examples are endless.

      I have no idea what weather imposed limitations there might be on missile launches, if any, but I have never heard of any.

    2. @CNO. I've never heard of weather limitations on ASMs, most videos of tests always seem to be in good visibility, no sea state to speak off....closest we got about weather is Falkland war with Argies firing Exocets. I wonder what would happen in bad weather? Finding and targeting will be a b#tch and seriously degraded but what about the ASMs? Will they work as advertised? Just wondering.

    3. "The Navy's Sea Hunter, which is a modified catamaran style, is rated up to sea state 7"

      That smells of exaggerated claim to me, to be fair.

    4. "That smells of exaggerated claim to me, to be fair."

      That's survival, not operationally effective. It's the Navy's claim and while I have no faith in their claims, I nothing better to go on.

    5. Per Wikipedia, "Sea Hunter has a full load displacement of 145 tons and is intended to be operational through Sea State 5, waves up to 6.5 ft (2.0 m) high and winds up to 21 knots (24 mph; 39 km/h), and survivable through Sea State 7, seas up to 20 ft (6.1 m) high"

      So, at best it stops being operational fairly soon?
      Unsurprising, of course, but good luck hunting subs with that!

    6. Stop hunting subs with the prototype. Use what they actually intend to use. This ship minus 1 engine.

    7. Today, best way to hunt submarines is aircraft, such as P3 and P8. They drop many sonobuoys to cover a large area. There are active sonobuoys which send annoying sound waves from which even a submarine keeps quiet cannot escape. They only way not to be detected is to sit on seabed without moving but the annoying sound from active sonobuoys torture crews. Sonobuoys are especially effective in shallow waters where effects of sound wave due to sea water temperature change negligible.

      Major downside for sonobuoys is they are "one-use" consumable. Once a sonobuoy's battery runs out, it ceases to function. This year, Navy ordered more than 200K sonobuoys.

      You can see why Navy is so happy on P-8 (P-3 are superseded by P-8).

  13. All this is moot. Why? Missiles, from far off, no standoff is far enough. Our carriers aren't any more survivable than the old gunboats depicted here, Skipper. Not to presume to tell you anything you don't already know, but I spent 5 years-and-change aboard Nimitz and I can tell you, having been aboard for several debacles, you don't have to sink a carrier (and you wouldn't want to, given the environmental mess it would create near your shores), you merely get a good hot fire going on the flight deck and it's game over. You get so involved saving the ship, launching and recovering and re-arming the birds becomes second priority. Also, with Ford-Class EMALS, your catapults would all be down for months with repairs, by which time we would have already 'lost' the encounter or war. With missiles, it's become like the movie War Games; The only winning move is not to play the game.

    With all we've invested in carriers, their escorts and 5000 sailors trained to run them, isn't this a foolish pursuit given the vulnerability of these things, Skipper?

    1. "get a good hot fire going on the flight deck and it's game over."

      Come on, now, you know this isn't necessarily true. If nothing else, the Enterprise and Forrestal conflagrations graphically demonstrated that. Even DURING the fire/explosions both carriers could have continued to launch aircraft from some cats, had the need been there due to combat. Yes, safety considerations would have been thrown out but that's the nature of combat.

      In both cases, the actual fires were out in a matter of hours and, again, the launch portion of flight ops could have continued. Whether recoveries could have occurred is unknown. I suspect that could have albeit with increased risk but that's just speculation on my part.

      "given the vulnerability of these things"

      You, of all people, should know a carrier is the least vulnerable ship afloat, IF PROPERLY OPERATED. This means operating in groups of four carriers, 30+ escorts for the group, leading escort subs sanitizing the path, and a layered defense with aircraft hundreds of miles out. Also, you don't pull up to the enemy's shore, drop anchor, and duke it out. You use carriers the way WWII and the Cold War taught us: you MOVE CONSTANTLY and silently (EMCON). If you stay hundreds of miles away from enemy bases and use Burkes to shoot Tomahawks and the group's aircraft for defense, that eliminates most of the enemy's potential attacks since most cruise missiles don't have that kind of range. Aircraft hundreds of miles out should prevent targeting and be able to deal with whatever aircraft appear.

      A properly operated carrier group is the toughest nut to crack there is. That doesn't mean there can't be losses but it does mean that carriers are the farthest thing from vulnerable.

      If your experience was other than what I've described, that means we weren't operating and training for high end war. That's most certainly the problem we have today. Not a single Admiral has any experience with actual carrier GROUP combat operations. When war comes, we'll pay a heavy price to relearn the lessons of WWII and the Cold War.

      One example of a forgotten lesson: that gigantic electromagnetic beacon we call EMALS is not, and cannot be, shielded. EMCON is not even possible for Ford class carriers. The Ford is, essentially, a giant blinking neon sign saying, here I am!

  14. Hi! I hope it's OK to comment on an old post. This one is really interesting, although admittedly not very practical since it's about something that happened 200 years ago.

    What exactly was the US supposed to do, in these circumstances? We were badly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, not only in ships, but also in manpower, money, experience, technology.. everything!

    Arguably, we should have just done nothing, and aimed for a diplomatic solution with England. And ship or fort we built was just aggravating the diplomatic situation with them. And it's not like we had the capability to win a sustained war with them... America had something like 7 million population then, compared to something like 20 million for the UK. And they had the advantage of having a long time to build up their navy, while we built ours from scratch.

    So yeah. What would you do, if you were president in the early 1800s? Do you rely on local gunboats and forts that can be easily blockaded by a superior force? Do you try to build a Bluewater navy, despite the massive economical disadvantage? Or do you just accept the power difference and try to live with being blackjacked? All of those choices seem terrible, but I don't see any better alternative.


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