Collections: Where Does My Main Battery Go?

This week, we’re going to have a bit of fun. We’re going to take a look at a science fiction ship design – the eponymous Battlestar Galactica – through the lens of some ship design principles developed for early dreadnoughts. We’re going to be talking about gun position.

We want to start by actually identifying the main battery on the Galactica (and others of it’s class, the Jupiter-Class in the lore of the series) and noting the gun positions. This is actually quite difficult in the show – the shaky cam and use of close-ups often makes it hard to know exactly what part of the ship you are looking at when any of the batteries fire. Fortunately, the (apparently canon, from what I can tell) strategy game Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock provides us with not one but two models of the Galactica’s class (one pre-refit, one post-refit; the latter corresponds to the version seen in the show) from its period of active service, which let us see exactly where the batteries are. The initial configuration looks like this:

Jupiter Mk1. Forgive the UI elements in these screenshots, I had to grab them quickly.

While the post-refit configuration (the one that appears, with minor modifications, in the show) looks like this:

Jupiter MkII. I have to admit, I find it hard to believe that such a complete remodel – removing one of the connecting pylons to the flight-pod, for instance – would be done as a refit, rather than launched as a complete second class. Then again, if you look at the cold-war refits of late WWII US carriers, like the USS Midway (CV-41), they made fairly dramatic changes to the flight-deck layout.

The latter clearly has a bit more firepower and a somewhat slimmed down design, but the essentials of the gun layout follows the same basic system. The largest concentration of firepower is in the dorsal gun turrets (on the upper-side of the ship), in two sets of four double-turrets arranged in squares, though the heaviest guns are the front-mounted turrets, slung underneath the ship’s bow in a pair of double-turrets. Those guns are called ‘door-kickers’ in the fiction, though the traditional name for them drawn from the sailing-ship-era would be ‘bow chasers’ (a subset of ‘chase guns’ more broadly), since they are not really part of the main battery. Another, smaller set of heavy guns is set below the ship (ventral), but is not part of the dorsal battery, since the two generally cannot be directed at the same targets (the ventral guns cannot elevate enough and the dorsal guns cannot depress enough, in part because of the placement of the flight pods).

Dorsal mounted guns on the Mk1 Jupiter Class

Finally, there is a set of smaller, more rapidly firing point-defense guns arranged on the flight-pod itself, covering the port and starboard respectively. In the game, these guns are the ones responsible for flak barrages, though in the show we also see the guns of the main battery participate. That’s actually not entirely crazy – dual-purpose anti-ship/anti-air guns were deployed on many WWII era surface ships, with even the massive 18.1″ main battery of the Yamato-class being able to fire an anti-air shell – admittedly one that, like most Japanese AA in the war, was of sharply limited utility.

Dorsal mounted guns on the Mk2, reorganized into sets of four, as with the ventral guns. Oddly, the firing positions are recessed into the ship’s hull slightly, which would make the firing angles even worse.

Now, it is true that battlestars as shown in the series have an additional set of weapons: the fighters contained in their two flight pods (sidenote: paired, unconnected flight pods seem like they would create really awful storage and fire-prevention problems for munitions and fuel). But I think it’s fair to say that the primary armament of the battlestar is its main guns. It is quite clear in the series that Colonial Fleet doctrine is to close into range of the heavy conventional batteries and then batter enemy ships into submission – indeed, the combat air group a battlestar carries is very poorly adapted to engage capital ships by itself, as it features no dedicated bomber (the Raptor can do the job, but is really a repurposed scout ship, not a bombing specialist).

Problems

So what is wrong with this layout? The main issue (and this becomes painfully clear when playing the game, rather than watching the show) is that the firing arcs of these guns are terrible, for two separate, but important reasons.

The first is the firing sweep the guns themselves have. The rearmost cluster of dorsal guns are at least partially obstructed by the engine housing in both versions of the ship (more so in the Mk1) and all of the dorsal guns are blocked from firing low and forward by the bow section, which is ‘taller’ than the mid-section where the guns are mounted (this is worse for the Mk1 than the Mk2, but they both have the problem). The ventral guns have all of these problems, but worse, most notably in the ventral gun clusters on the Mk2, which cannot fully depress its guns because they have been, for some inexplicable reason, placed in a depression in the hull.

As an aside: I find the bow-bulge an unlikely design problem. The bow section of a Battlestar doesn’t contain the main weapon system, or the drive system (either FTL or sub-light), or anything for flight operations, which is to say that it is neither the primary weapon system, nor the primary propulsion system. It mostly seems to house crew and command spaces. Looking across naval design over the centuries from oars to sails to nuclear reactors, one of the few constants is that the overall shape and profile of the ships are dictated by propulsion and armament (with crew facilities essentially jammed in ‘wherever they fit’). So it is a bit baffling what in the bow section is so important that it was worth over-sizing the bow and thus partially obscuring the main battery to fit in. Speaking from historical designs, anything in the bow section is likely to be compromised to preserve the main battery’s firing angles.

This gun sweep problem is further compounded by the clustering of the guns themselves. While the clusters will work fine if firing ‘up’ or ‘down’ relative to the ship’s orientation, any relatively flat firing trajectory leaves them blocked by each other – that is, the front guns in a cluster cannot fire backwards and the port guns cannot fire starboard and so on. Chances are, the firing ‘deadzones’ are significantly larger than they appear; I’m not clear exactly what the tech is (if these are railguns or traditional chemically propelled guns), but it clearly shows muzzle blast on firing, so a ‘near miss’ of a friendly turret is still going to blast them with hot gas or other firing debris. As we’ll see in a moment, this sort of design issue was present in many early dreadnoughts, and I can’t imagine the vacuum of space would make it any better – on the upside, there would be no pressure wave, but on the downside, that would mean the gas would arrive to the back of the friendly turret with all of its velocity and nearly all of its heat.

Screencap of the show (this is actually the Pegasus, I think) showing the muzzle blast quite clearly.

The second problem is those firing arcs taken together: there is effectively no angle at which a Jupiter-class battlestar can actually bring most or all of its firepower to bear on a large enemy target. No matter the angle of enemy attack, a significant portion of Galactica‘s guns have quite literally nothing to do. If the target is level and in front of Galactica, only the bow-chasers can fire, but they cannot fire if the target is below or above and only half of them can fire to either port or starboard. Targets on the broadside and level with the flight pods can only be engaged by half of the dorsal and ventral guns (or less, depending on the angle), while targets above Galactica may take the full brunt of the dorsal battery but nothing else.

(As a side note, experienced Deadlock players may note that there is a small window where distant targets which are – relative to a Jupiter – in front and slightly above, may be engaged by both the door-kickers (which can elevate, if only slightly, from the ‘waterline’) and the dorsal battery, but (at least in my experience) that zone is painfully small and hardly seems an intended part of the ship’s design.)

I suspect that the gun positions here were arrived at for cinematic reasons, of course. In shot composition, relative height often indicates power. By having Galactica‘s guns mostly mounted on top, Galactica can be repeatedly put in scenes where it is ‘below’ Cylon adversaries, which I suspect was an intentional effort to visually display the extreme power imbalance between the humans and Cylons. Which is a pretty solid reason to set the ship up this way for a TV show and it works very well in the show to create very dynamic and dramatic combat scenes.

But of course, we’re here for pedantry, not sound visual design. And so we turn to our second section: how was this handled historically, or

What Galactica can learn from South Carolina (BB-26)

Many of these same sorts of issues – what sort of main batter to have, and where should it go – bedeviled naval design in the late 1800s and early 1900s, both before and for the first few years after the development of HMS Dreadnought (launched 1906). Now, there were quite a lot of factors that played a role in the emergence of Dreadnought and the entire ship-type that was named after her; the development of the dreadnoughts was itself a product of the complex interplay of developments in gunnery, armor and steam propulsion, with naval designers attempting to navigate the trade-offs between the three.

But here I want to get at two key ideas: what does it mean when we describe Dreadnought as all big gun and how are all of those big guns are laid out.

To explain the former, we have to actually begin with pre-dreadnoughts (which obviously were not called that in their day – they were just called ‘battleships’). These ships tended to have mixed batteries of guns in a wide range of calibers. The reasoning was that the smaller guns could fire more rapidly and so more successfully engage smaller, faster targets (like torpedo boats), while the big guns were necessary to engage other battleships. These were classed as the ‘primary’ battery (the big guns, mounted in turrets) and a ‘secondary’ battery (the fast-firing smaller guns, usually mounted in casemates); some pre-dreadnoughts also mounted an even smaller ‘tertiary’ battery. Within these batteries, some pre-dreadnoughts mixed calibers as well, since different guns would be at different effectiveness against different targets (as well as for availability concerns, e.g. the Japanese Satsuma class). I find pre-dreadnought design fascinating even though it was a developmental dead-end.

Via Wikipedia, HMS Majestic (1895) as diagrammed in Brassey’s Naval Annual (1902). Note the extensive secondary battery contained in casemates along the side of the ship, compared to the far more limited main batter contained in the two turrets.

(As an aside: one thing Galactica keeps from the pre-dreadnought era is the use of casemates. A casemate was an armored wall along the side of the ship which would house the secondary guns. The armor of the casemate made these positions more protected than if the guns were just placed, unarmored, on the deck, but casemates often had sharply restricted firing angles (particularly for elevation). Casemates steadily vanished after dreadnought, with the secondary battery – increasingly (post-1920) in an anti-air role – moved to small turrets mounted on the upper decks. But Galactica’s point-defense turrets are mounted in what appear to be effectively casemates, projecting out from between the structural beams that support the outer armor layer. Compared to modern close-in weapon system (CIWS, pronounced see-wiz) mounts, the firing angles for those point-defense weapons are not very good).

In the first half of the first decade of the 1900s, a combination of developments lead towards the development of the all big gun battleship, the first of which was Dreadnought (and thus subsequent all big gun battleships were called ‘dreadnoughts’). Better loading systems and range-finding had improved accuracy (especially at long range) and rate of fire on the big guns, reducing the dependence of fast-firing secondaries (whose duties were, in many cases, offloaded onto escorting cruisers anyway), while improvements in battleship armor made it increasingly clear that anything less than the heaviest artillery was likely to be useless. Since all of the work was likely to be done by the main battery, it made sense to prioritize it more heavily.

A single, uniform main battery of big guns also greatly simplified fire control and direction, because you were now working a single set of guns with identical range, muzzle velocity and firing characteristics. While a more limited secondary battery was kept, the primary focus of Dreadnought‘s design was the main battery, and on the assumption that the main battery, working through a single fire control system, would be focused on a single target. Of course a uniform shell-type over the main battery also makes logistics quite a bit easier as well.

Via Wikipedia, a ship plan for HMS Dreadnought (1906). Note how the firepower is concentrated into the main battery, in the form of five double-turrets. This is what is meant by an all-big-gun design.

Now the question is: where do all of those big guns go? There are a lot of really fascinating designs in the early years after Dreadnought and in terms of main battery layout, Dreadnought herself is less a final version and more an intermediate stage. Dreadnought cannot face all of her guns in any direction – of the five turrets, only four can fire to port or starboard (the two wing turrets being the problem here), only one turret can fire directly aft (due to the placement of the rear tower). In theory, three turrets can fire forward, but in practice – remember I said we’d come back to this – actually firing the wing guns directly forward was likely to blow out the conning tower (whoops…).

Early dreadnought designs attempted a variety of gun-layouts in an effort to allow for maximum firepower to be concentrated on a single target. Early German designs, like the Nassau– and Helgoland-class used a ‘hexagonal’ layout, which allowed them to mount more guns than Dreadnought, but it didn’t allow them to bring any more of those guns to bear on a single target – the layout was abandoned because it increased the weight of the hull without any real advantage in deliverable firepower.

Via Wikipedia, the gun layout for SMS Nassau (1908), showing a hexagonal gun layout, which allows for fitting a lot more guns (six turrets!) in the available deck-space. Inferior firing angles, however, means that there is no firepower advantage compared to Dreadnought’s turret layout – but the considerable weight of the extra turrets comes at a cost in armor and speed.

Another layout was the (crazy, but also kind of awesome) zig-zag layout of ships like HMS Neptune. Neptune could, conceivably bring all of its guns to bear either port or starboard – the staggered arrangement meant that they didn’t obstruct each other. But it also meant that the turrets amidships would have to fire through the upper-works; in practice, this was found to do significant damage to the ship – the same blast-damage problem we saw earlier with Dreadnought‘s wing guns.

Via Wikipedia, showing the gun layout for HMS Colossus (1911) from Brassey’s Naval Annual (1915) showing the zig-zag placement of guns (the same layout as the Neptune). The upper structure would arc over the guns set amidships to allow them to potentially be turned to fire over the ship to the opposite side.

(As an aside: the other problem with layouts set with heavy wing turrets is that they tend to make the ship unstable because they move so much of the weight away from the ship’s centerline. I’m not sure, for a space-ship, how much this would be a concern.)

The solution actually came from the US Navy from an odd direction: Congress. No, I am not kidding. The US Navy had been having the same set of realizations that led the British to Dreadnought, and so in 1905, they went to Congress asking if they could build some fancy new battleships too (Dreadnought was well under construction by this point). Congress, however, was about done with the Navy – they had just built and launched six Connecticut class pre-dreadnoughts (remember though, they were just ‘battleships’ at this point), several of which weren’t even done yet and already the Navy wanted a new ship class? So, in an effort to hold down the cost, Congress demanded that whatever the navy built, it had to be 16,000 tons or less.

Dreadnought, to be clear, as 18,120 tons. So weight would need to be saved. Under those kinds of displacement constraints, having turrets that didn’t do anything was hardly an option, meaning that optimal firing positions were vital to be able to get a ship that could stand up to a Dreadnought at a lower displacement. The solution was superfiring.

No, that doesn’t mean ‘firing better’ but rather (following the Latin) firing over. The South Carolina-class would have two turrets forward and two turrets aft, in each case with one turret firing over the one in front of it. The long barrels would put the muzzle blast safely out in front of (most of) the turret-housing of the lower turret. As an added bonus, in some designs, both turrets in a group could protect their magazines and works with a smaller armored ‘citadel,’ which also saved weight. This appears most famously on the absolutely hideous looking (but fairly effective) Nelson-class of British battleships (c. 1927) which had three triple-turrets, all set forward together to save on weight to keep the ship under the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty.

Via wikipedia, the deck and armor layout for the USS South Carolina (BB-26) from Brassey’s Naval Annual (1912), with the super-firing guns. Note how the super-firing position allows the design to conserve armor (shown by the dark shading)

So while Dreadnought had 5 double turrets could put 4 to each broadside, 1 to aft and 1-3 fore, the South Carolina with just four double-turrets could put all four to either side, 2 to the aft and two to the fore, without any danger of accidentally blowing out her own conning tower. Now, there were some challenges for superfiring gun arrangements – taller turrets meant moving more mass up on the ship, bringing the center of gravity up and potentially destabilizing the entire ship. That, in turn, put a sharp limit to the number of turrets which could be ‘stacked’ (typically just two). Which was just as well, because it rapidly became apparent that – forced to choose between more guns and bigger guns – bigger was generally the best option.

While it took a few years to fully catch on, for battleships, superfiring gun layouts eventually dominated battleship design, because it allowed the ship in question to concentrate all of its big-gun anti-capital ship firepower on a single target.

Re-imagining Galactica

Keeping our historical battleship design in mind, we can revisit Galactica. Now, it is perfectly fine if Galactica’s secondary battery (intended to engage fighters and provide point-defense against missiles) is split all over the ship for coverage. But the same factors – weight of fire, ease of fire control, mass-and-space savings – that lead to the development of uniform caliber, superfiring battleship main batteries are all at play here.

The exact positioning of that main battery would depend very significantly on the intended engagement angle. Rather than spreading the main guns all around, the ship would be planned with a single angle that most – if not all – of the main battery could focus on a single target. For a ship moving in three dimensions (instead of two) there are really three options: an angle perpendicular to the ship’s primary direction of acceleration (essentially ‘broadside’ but would also cover dorsal and ventral angles), an angle opposite to the primary direction of acceleration (aft) or with the acceleration (fore).

In the case of the Galactica – a ship armed with mostly shorter range conventional munitions, whose primary threat consists of large enemy carriers operating at long-range using strike-craft and missiles – I’d think a forward engagement angle would be the obvious choice. While Galactica is mostly engaged in time-buying defensive delays in the show, she wouldn’t have been designed for an escort role; Galactica was originally a front-line heavy combat ship, built to engage Cylon capital ships. Given that, it seems likely that Galactica would be firing while attempting to close with their targets – ‘charging’ while firing.

(An aside: Now, I’m assuming the physics and motion model that we see in the show and its associated games. While smaller ships in Battlestar Galactica are often shown to turn on their axis (flying one way and pointing another), larger ships seem to generally stay oriented towards the direction of their velocity. More to the point, ships tend to accelerate in the direction they want to go, rather than following orbital paths or transfer orbits, so I am going to assume that Galactica is likely to face-and-charge an opposing ship, rather than the more complex intercept trajectories you might get from orbital mechanics.)

So how might Galactica‘s main battery be moved in order to improve the firing angles? I think the solution lies in a superfiring gun layout. One of the main limits to superfiring gun positions on a battleship was that they raised the ship’s center of mass, resulting in instability – that’s why a ship like the HMS Nelson can’t elevate its third turret above the other two. But a ship can’t capsize in space (although you would want the vector of acceleration to pass trough the center of mass, so that turning on the engines doesn’t rotate the ship), so you could superposition quite a lot more of the battery. Instead of mounting the guns in clusters on center of the ship, they could be mounted on the bow section, in superpositioned mounts (presumably with crew and command facilities moved to the center section of the ship).

Via Wikipedia, HMS Nelson (launched 1925). In order to save weight to comply with the Washington Naval treaty, all three turrets of the main battery were concentrated forward so that they could share armor and magazines. The design was fairly successful, but oh boy, it is ugly.

If I could make further design changes, rather than the current layout of a lot of mid-sized guns and some point-defense guns, I might seek to compress the main battery into a handful of much larger emplacements (super-positioned on the bow) while expanding the number of smaller emplacements mounted in dorsal or ventral positions (ideally with nice, big firing arcs). The center section might also be made taller, but not so long (so that it isn’t obscured by the bow or aft) to allow better firing arcs.

Conclusion

This bit of design silliness is by no means limited to Battlestar Galactica. If anything, the firing angles on Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars are even worse. The ship is shaped like a diamond, which promises lots of space for superpositioned guns, but instead the main battery is set to either side of the main tower, with the turrets lined up such that they make it impossible for all of the guns to be fired forward.

One thing I haven’t discussed here, but is closely related to the intended angle of engagement is armor placement. Armor is almost never uniformly thick on any armored vehicle, be it a warship or a tank – instead, armor is carefully shaped around key assumptions on the likely angle of attack as well as what parts of the vehicle are most important. You can see this quite clearly in tank design, where rear and top armor is typically much thinner than front or side armor. We’d expect the same consideration for a ship like Galactica – and in Deadlock, this is actually the case – the broadsides and front arc are far more heavily armored than the rear, top or bottom.

Now, does all of this matter? Honestly, no, not really. Certainly, I find that making designs in speculative fiction more plausible by leaning on historical design philosophies can make the fictional world itself feel more real which can improve the storytelling.

But I think the real take-away here is an obvious but oft forgotten one: while it is easy to critique the designs of historical weapon systems, they were in fact the product of quite a lot of smart people working hard to solve difficult problems. “Doing it all” was never an option – every bit of added firepower or armor meant more weight and thus less speed (or, in space, a worse thrust-to-mass ratio). In turn, that meant for a given engine and speed requirement, every bit of armor meant less firepower, and vice versa. Having lots of small guns meant fewer guns in the main battery.

Often when we see designs that are clearly compromised in some way – like, famously, the M4 Sherman – we attribute this to ‘bad’ design, when it is often in fact the product of forced compromises in the design process between competing and incompatible design goals.

(Clarification note: I think a few folks may have misunderstood my comment about the Sherman. I’d actually argue that – in light of the demands placed on its design, particularly by logistics – the M4 Sherman is a remarkable feat of successful design. I was merely noting that it is also a deeply compromised design and one with an (unearned, in my view) bad reputation with many enthusiasts in the public – although this seems to be turning around lately).

15 thoughts on “Collections: Where Does My Main Battery Go?

  1. Where to put big guns on a spaceship would be a nice problem. They are heavy, so near the centre of mass is better, but a lot depends on whether and how artificial gravity works. If it does not envelop the ship, maneuverability would be a key concern (not to mention the embarrassment of breaking the ship in two). C J Cherryh’s Downbelow Station series has some nice issues along these lines.

    On battleships, Ian Johnston & Ian Buxton’s The Battleships Builders is a good read – including the Admiralty’s heavy direct investment in R&D (hydrodynamic experiments, royal dockyards, turbines…) and the perennial contest over costs (they lost in areas where they had no in-house expertise). So is Peter Padfield’s biography of mad genius inventor gunner Adm Sir Percy Scott.

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  2. I’m definitely with you in annoyance at poor weapon layouts in fictional spacecraft, although the obvious answer to me is to start by mirroring them “above” and “below” the centerline, then start “superfiring”. But I do have to nitpick your history of battleship design quite a lot. (It’s what I do for fun.)

    First, the “secondary” guns on pre-dreadnoughts were absolutely part of their main armament. The QF guns were very important as weapons against enemy battleships, and eventually grew to essentially merge with the main armament, most notably on the Lord Nelson class. The tertiary battery was intended for use against smaller ships, and it eventually grew into the secondary battery on later dreadnoughts. For more details on this, see https://www.navalgazing.net/The-QF-Gun.

    Second, you give Congress too much credit for the design of the South Carolinas. Yes, their reticence to spend money played a part, but it was also largely due to better US doctrine. The USN had figured out (correctly) that ships would fight primarily on the broadside, while the British were still flirting with end-on fire. When South Carolina was laid down, the USN had no clue at all that the upper turret would be able to fire over the bow. For that matter, it was only able to because of the layout of the sighting equipment. Until Hood, British superfiring turrets couldn’t do so. Some details are in https://www.navalgazing.net/Dreadnought, although I really need to write about turret arrangements in more depth.

    Thirdly, I don’t think wing turrets would injure stability due to large masses far off the centerline. That’s not really how stability works. If anything, you’re going to see less roll due to a greater moment of inertia. They have serious structural penalties, but that’s another issue entirely.

    (I’ll leave my issues with “the M4 Sherman was flawed” for another time.)

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    1. I’m not quite sure where you are differing with me?

      I am using the primary/secondary/tertiary battery distinction as a term of convenience for clarity. I have seen it used fairly frequently this way when discussing the emergence of the all-big-gun dreadnoughts. Obviously, there’s a bit of hindsight bias there, but for the purposes of contextualizing the all-big-gun dreadnought, it was better to focus on clarity than to confuse with specificity.

      On the SCs – there are limits to the length and depth I go into here, especially on a topic like this. I am aware that there is a compression of complexity, but I think it is fair to say that much of the SCs design, including superfiring, was a response to strict tonnage limits. You don’t seem to dispute that. It is also fair to say that superfiring gun layouts eventually become standard, albeit they require other things to lock into place (things which, I might note, don’t seem to matter much for the sci-fi target of the discussion). So I’m not sure where we differ? Is the issue just not enough detail in the intervening steps?

      On wing turret stability-and-frame-stress issues: I am not a naval architect. It is a claim I’ve seen repeated in multiple places. Looking briefly, it seems to come out of a few books – admittedly, not very recent – by Norman Freeman (in the context of the poor sailing characteristics of the Nassau-class). I don’t really have the time at the moment to run that claim to ground. If you can do so and figure out what is going on there, feel free to pop by with a comment and inform the rest.

      As for the Sherman – you will find me a pro-Sherman fellow. A tank in the field is worth ten in the motor pool (and a hundred sitting in the factory) – logistics and operational readiness matter as much or more than raw combat ability. I am not claiming the Sherman was flawed, merely noting that it is a claim frequently made.

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      1. Re primary/secondary/tertiary, the issue I was raising wasn’t that your terminology was wrong so much as that the way secondary batteries worked was very different back then. When we talk about secondary batteries on a dreadnought, we’re talking about weapons intended to be used against secondary targets, such as attacking destroyers. (The big exception is the early German dreadnoughts, which kept a 6″ battery to shoot at other battleships, but German design has always been weird.) The secondary batteries on the pre-dreads were intended for use against other battleships first and foremost.

        You were right on the South Carolinas. I didn’t check US Battleships An Illustrated Design History and thought that the concept of superfiring came up before the Congressional limit was in place, because that’s normally how it would work. In this case, it doesn’t appear in the documents until a month or two after the authorization for those ships.

        On the Nassaus, the problem wasn’t poor stability per se. The problem was that the roll period of the ship was almost exactly the same as the average period of waves in the North Sea, so each successive wave added more energy to the ships. Roll period is based on both the stability and the moment of inertia/radius of gyration, so I’m sure the wing turrets contributed to that problem. It mostly went away when bilge keels were fitted.

        As for the Sherman, I’d defend it not only on “some tank is better than no tank” grounds, but as an actually pretty good tank. I think the issues were a combination of inept tactical handling by inexperienced Americans, a brief period where American tankers were stockpiling extra ammo outside the wet storage, German memoirs that involved facing T-34s in 1941 and Shermans in 1944, and the fact that you can’t write a memoir critical of the T-34 in the Soviet Union. Note that Shermans sent to the USSR mostly ended up in the hands of Guard units, who could easily have had T-34s instead.

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  3. “Often when we see designs that are clearly compromised in some way – like, famously, the M4 Sherman – we attribute this to ‘bad’ design, when it is often in fact the product of forced compromises in the design process between competing and incompatible design goals.”

    Personally, I would say that M4 Sherman is the best tank design of World War II. Where it ran into trouble is the fact that US – until late in the war – had no heavy tank to back it up (like Soviets did with T-34 and KV series; particularly Iosef Stalin tanks which were heavy tanks but I’d class them as a part of KV series). As a result, Shermans were forced to take up roles of medium and heavy tanks both, and suffered for it.

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  4. Another aspect is how undergunned many media-SF warships seem to be. The Battlestar seems to have both few and small guns for a ship its size, the Enterprise class is massively undergunned (a friend of mine once commented that it was a good ship in Star Fleet Battles because there was so much wasted space where hits could be soaked up), and a Star Destroyer is a huge ship that still just mounts hundreds of really small guns and everything important is done by fighters. The only reason to have a big warship is if it _has_ to be big to mount its armament (or in the case of aircraft carriers, flight deck).

    Come to think of it, it’s also a bit odd that so few SF shows have their ships in battle group organisations – instead, there’s just this one capital ship that has to do it all (and this is probably why it’s so common that they mix battleship and light carrier duties in the same vessel, whether it’s a Battlestar, an Earth Force Destroyer in B5 (which at least has a reasonable gun loadout), or even the Martian Navy in The Expanse (the Donnager battleship carries a bunch of torpedo boats).

    Probably my favorite space warship design is where the ship is built around a linear accelerator as main armament, which also goes to explain why it has a ship-like shape instead of being just, say, spherical.

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    1. I actually think the lack of battlegroups makes a lot of sense, as the battlegroup is a fundamentally modern invention, and derives from the nature of modern naval warfare. Go back 150 years, and there’s no concept of it. The only weapon is the gun, and a big ship will almost always beat a small ship because it has more and bigger guns. There’s none rock-paper-scissors dynamic that powers warfare today. As a result, there’s no reason to have a battlegroup built around a big ship and the small ships that serve to protect it from the asymmetric threats. Until ~1890, small ships accompanying a battleship were there as scouts and couriers, not to protect the battleship, because the battleship didn’t need protection. The torpedo changed all this when it allowed a small boat to threaten a battleship. As torpedo boats became capable of operations on the open sea, ships (destroyers) were developed to protect against this asymmetric threat, and the battlegroup was born. All later escorts were essentially extensions of this logic, vessels developed to fight asymmetric threats like submarines or aircraft.

      But there’s no reason to assume that asymmetric threats will exist in space in any form like they did on the seas of the 20th century. There’s no air to fly through or water to hide under. A space fighter operates in the exact same environment as its carrier, which raises a lot of questions about its viability. So if a big ship has the same weapons and same environment as a small one, then the whole rock-paper-scissors thing collapses back into “big ship beats little ship”, and there’s no reason to see a battlegroup like we do today.

      (Just to be clear, this isn’t a defense of the SF you criticize. They take a bunch of cues from 20th century naval warfare, and probably don’t have a battlegroup because it makes things more complicated. But that’s a different issue.)

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  5. What about instead of a straight-on bow mounting they were *vertically* mounted on the “cheeks” of the bow bulge? Since the bow is wider than it is tall, these positions could give better gun arcs and a freer line of fire (though there’s still some angles that you couldn’t use due to the extended flight pods or the aft engine bulges). At least some rear-firing angles could still exist, though.

    Superfiring vertical turrets on the cheeks would let you batter ahead, or if the ship was turned on its side, also use the dorsal or ventral guns as a broadside attack as well while still using all the cheek guns.

    Possible disadvantages? Well, moving the heavy guns offline from the axis might be difficult in terms of recoil or feeding, the center of gravity would change and maybe maneuvering would be worse – it really depends on the fictional engineering of the battlestars and their guns. They’d also be more exposed to fire in these positions. You might have to add external armor walls and cut down on some of the angles they can fire or something? Also unless they’re more ball-like in the turret they might not be able to fire on targets approaching that side directly because they can’t raise to a high enough elevation, the side-mounted guns would have to take over.

    Obviously this isn’t comparable to any real ship designs, since on Earth gravity exists and trying to hang turrets vertically off a ship’s bow might be…problematic. But it’s space magic rules here, so maybe it’d work?

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  6. I can answer your question about assigning top and bottom to a space warship, and it involves heat rejection. One of the things that the cheesy ’50s spaceship designs got right was the big fins: you need them to radiate all the heat being generated by your onboard reactor. Space might be cold, but is missing most of the usual ways to transfer heat. All you’re left with is radiation. The trouble is, those fins/radiators need to be big (they’d be easy targets) and flimsy (excess mass is a performance issue).

    For a look at the ones on the ISS to get the idea of scale: https://smd-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/science-red/s3fs-public/mnt/medialibrary/2001/03/20/ast21mar_1_resources/iss_sts98_strip.jpg

    So you’ve got some sort of heat-generating reactor, and your weapons all produce enormous amounts of heat as well, so your warship needs those fins, or you’ll cook your own crew. Since the radiators are flimsy, you need to hide them from your opposition. The best way to do that is put your primary hull (which should be armored) between the fins and your enemy.

    Now you have a side of your ship that you want to hide from your enemy, so it follows that you want all your weaponry on the other side. The crew might not refer to this as top and bottom (gun-board and sail-ward, maybe?), but there it is.

    (Note that this explanation is kinda simplified. This is a comment, and not my own pedantic post.)

    Shameless plug: several years ago, I wrote a tabletop minis game that solved the problem of representing realistic inertia. A description of it is here: http://www.purplefuzzymonster.com/starships)

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  7. A fantastic read, well done!

    I haven’t read all of the comments, so this may have been pointed out already, but it seems unlikely that manned warships would be common in space. Autonomous or semi-autonomous warships would likely fare far better. In the spirit of the article, I’ll call these hypothetical robot warships “cylons”.
    Us squishy meatbags need food and water and air, which would mean food and life support systems, which would add mass. Ideally, we’d have gravity, which would mean rotating sections that would add more mass, and we’d need some sort of radiation shielding too. All that, on top of the weapons, ammo, armor, and electronic systems that would add still more mass, as well as radiators to deal with heat, which is additional mass. You need fuel to push all that mass, and adding fuel adds mass, which needs more fuel. Removing the human element allows a cylon to use a lot less gas.
    Not only does automation allow your warship to be less massive, it also makes possible maneuvers that would crush a human crew; things like sudden starts and stops and sharp direction changes, which may occasionally be needed to dodge projectiles fired at mind-boggling speeds.
    More importantly, a robotic warship could easily do the most important job of any soldier, which would be much more difficult for humans in space: waiting around. Space is huge, enemy encounters are likely to be even rarer than they are today, and during periods of inactivity a cylon could cut its power to a bare minimum, both to save fuel or avoid detection (as far as this is possible in space, which isn’t very – stealth nearly a lost cause in the void, where every bit of heat you produce makes you visible). Even during combat, the huge distances involved might often mean firing at an enemy and then waiting a few days, weeks, or even months for your attack to hit (or, more likely, miss, as your enemy will probably know where you are, when you fired, and have the same dodging capacity as you). A robot doesn’t have to worry about running out of protein packs in the meantime.
    All this can sound like a bit of a bummer, from a storytelling perspective. Certainly, it leaves no room for hot-shot viper pilots, but what I find interesting about these possible real-world cylons is that, despite being robots, they turn space warfare into a battle of wills: the goal is not to destroy your spaceborne robotic enemy, but make the human enemy controlling it believe you will destroy THEM. As you pointed out in your excellent six-part series on the Battle of Minas Tirith, winning a war is about breaking the will of the opposing nation, and nowhere would that be truer than in space. Cylons might be excellent for this, too: the idea of unfeeling, merciless space robots bearing down on your planet with WMDs is likely enough to make any Galatic Emporer sweat.

    Overall, a great article, I’m happy to have recently discovered your blog!

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  8. Very fun to read and a very pertinent analysis.

    I’ve watched the show (multiple times) and can’t remember the Galactica having main battery guns anywhere except in the dorsal turrets. I’d reckon the forward and ventral turrets were added in the game for gameplay reasons, to do with its simplified movement model.

    A dorsal-mounted main battery actually makes very much sense for a battle-carrier type space ship. Here’s why:

    In any given situation, the battlestar has a given thrust vector along which it needs to accelerate. This vector has little relation with the position of enemy forces: sometimes the battlestar wants to accelerate towards them, other times to brake, other times to alter its relative velocity laterally etc. While the thrust axis is determined by the tactical situation, the ship can roll any way it wants. So a dorsal-mounted turret can (by rolling the ship) engage targets everywhere except right in front and right behind. Whereas a forward-mounted turret can (at best) engage targets in a half-sphere in front of the ship, which is a problem whenever the required thrust vector points more than 90 degrees from the intended target.

    Also, the battlestar will almost certainly *not* need to accelerate towards the enemy for any extended time. This is because any significant movement is done via FTL jumps. As an aside, this is also why fighters are *not* nonsensical in the setting: engagement distances are extremely small, astronomically speaking. There’s no need for long-range combat at high velocity when one can always jump to within a few kilometers of the opposing force. At these point-blank ranges, big guns and agile fighters are probably the way to go.

    A reason not to position the main battery on the large bow is to keep the guns near the ship’s center of mass. Then, the recoil from the big guns doesn’t cause the ship to spin around too violently. There will always be some spin imparted, but the closer the guns are to the center of mass, the more of that momentum is linear (unimportant) instead of angular (problematic, because it messes with firing angles and thrust axis).

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  9. It’s an interesting read. In defence of Galactica’s gun placements, I would point out that you’re missing a big aspect of combat in space – the lack of any “up” direction.

    In naval warfare, a Dreadnought or battleship has to remain oriented a certain way up. This means that the big guns have to be on the superstructure, and where the ship can shoot is limited by this need (for example, the U.S.S. New Jersey can’t roll 90 degrees to give its big guns a better vertical firing angle). But, in space combat, this is not a limitation. The ship can orient itself in whatever direction it wants in any of the three dimensions.

    (Take, for example, the Battle of Ragnar in the miniseries – the Galactica ends up with its top facing the enemy, able to bring every single dorsal gun to bear.)

    So, the design theory is, by nature, different: what are the guns protecting, and what is the best placement to protect them? Galactica is a combination battleship and aircraft carrier, so the most important points to protect are the flight pods to each side. Personally, I think they’re well placed to do that.

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  10. “sidenote: paired, unconnected flight pods seem like they would create really awful storage and fire-prevention problems for munitions and fuel”

    Actually, pods are connected. We see that in the pilot when they have to get Vipers from a frakking’ museum to the operational flight pod on the opposite side.

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    1. I meant that they weren’t directly connect to each other – they have to pass through the primary hull. I’m not suggesting that they’d have to fly from one to the other (you are correct, that would be truly silly).

      But you *are* going to have to split munitions stowage and fuel storage, with the added demand of needing to be able to move things from one to the other. Those passage-ways, which have to lace through the primary hull, are also going to be fire and munitions-cook-off risks in combat conditions, since the fact that materials will need to move between two flight pods means that you cannot isolate either of them in the design (the way a battleship’s turret’s barbette effectively isolates the turret structure).

      You can see some of these problems appear – to a lesser extent – in WW2 Japanese carrier design, which frequently featured paired, stacked hanger decks (one above the other). This design feature – and the design compromises it forced – was one cause (of many) of the IJN’s fairly miserable damage-control track record through the war. It also created plane and munitions handling problems. You can read about that in Parshall and Tully, Shattered Sword (2005).

      On top of that, having two flight pods means duplicating all sorts of you-only-need-one recovery, storage, and flight machinery. Every component that has to be duplicated in the second flight pod is a bit of mass that isn’t more guns, more armor, or a better thrust-to-mass ratio. Including, I might add, the armored outer-structure of the flight pods, which as a shape is wildly inefficient to armor.

      If it were me – assuming the topside-face-enemy orientation Galactica prefers, I’d mass the pods together into one super-sized flight deck and place it on the ventral hull, so that it faces away from the likely direction of engagement (and since the open space it creates would probably complicate any effort to put main-battery guns on whatever side you put it on – big guns are a *lot* bigger than they appear on the outside of a ship when you account for magazine, fire control and loading systems).

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      1. “But you *are* going to have to split munitions stowage and fuel storage, with the added demand of needing to be able to move things from one to the other. Those passage-ways, which have to lace through the primary hull, are also going to be fire and munitions-cook-off risks in combat conditions, since the fact that materials will need to move between two flight pods means that you cannot isolate either of them in the design (the way a battleship’s turret’s barbette effectively isolates the turret structure).”

        There is an option for that, actually. I recall that hangars in World War II carriers had fire curtains or whatever these were called which effectively split a single structural hangar into several compartments. Not sure how effective they were, though.

        Second flight of British Illustrious class carriers had secondary hangar below the primary one, as did some of US carriers. If memory serves me, main issue with Japanese carriers was not double hangars, but rather their atrocious fuel stowage and fire control practices.

        “If it were me – assuming the topside-face-enemy orientation Galactica prefers, I’d mass the pods together into one super-sized flight deck and place it on the ventral hull, so that it faces away from the likely direction of engagement (and since the open space it creates would probably complicate any effort to put main-battery guns on whatever side you put it on – big guns are a *lot* bigger than they appear on the outside of a ship when you account for magazine, fire control and loading systems).”

        You actually see that design in at least one class of battlestar, although lot smaller than “line” battlestars. At any rate, problem with that is the fact that you still want two flight pods in the case one gets disabled – for capital ships, at least. So you need one dorsal and one ventral flight pod.

        Which, along with the shape of the “crocodile head” and trench along the Pegasus-class flight pods suggests that battlestars are actually supposed to engage multiple targets side-on – in which case flight pod arrangement actually makes sense, as it means that one flight pod will be protected by main structure against targets on either port or starboard side of the ship.

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