Dreadnoughts and Death Stars

When HMS Dreadnought slid off the dock and slipped into Portsmouth Harbor, she was the mightiest and most terrifying weapon mankind had ever created. Admiral Fisher had pushed for the design and construction of a battleship capable of sailing at twenty one knots and armed exclusively with heavy twelve inch guns. This technological terror was intended to make it clear to the world that British supremacy at sea was to be perpetual and unchallenged. The navies of friend, ally, and foe were to look upon her huge guns, gigantic size, and tremendous cost, despair, and relinquish control of the oceans to Great Britain.

The idea for this huge new battleship had been born at the naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Inventor and industrialist Charles Algernon Parsons had invented the steam turbine and to demonstrate its superiority to every other form of propulsion he sent the Turbinia, a ship powered by steam turbines, to crash the greatest massing of sea power the world had ever seen. In celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, the combined might of the Royal Navy was brought together before the eyes of princes, lords, journalists, and foreign dignitaries. The Admiralty meant to awe them all with the stunning spectacle of the planet’s greatest fleet. The Turbinia appeared uninvited and unwanted, racing between, around, and in front of the battleships. As she flew by, she was seen by all the watching luminaries to be far swifter than the proudest vessels of the Royal Navy. A picket boat was sent out to catch her but she easily danced away. To humiliate the admirals in front of the Prince of Wales was a dangerous expedient, but while they may have wanted to throttle Parsons it was obvious that existing ships couldn’t contend with one powered by steam turbines, and they had no alternative but to take his point.

The Dreadnought was designed to be powered by the new engines and she was laid down in thirteen months, faster than any battleship before. Yet as impressive as this feat was, it turned out to be an Ozymandian effort. Her speed and long range allowed her to keep her distance from any enemy ship and tear it apart without taking so much as a scratch and her launching made every other battleship afloat obsolete.  But the other navies of the world didn’t throw up their hands, give up, and concede the seas to Great Britain as the Admiralty had hoped.   Instead they rushed to build and launch their own Dreadnoughts. The introduction of Great Britain’s awesome new weapon touched off an arms race and the governments and navies of the world cast their wealth into the building of Dreadnoughts. Rather than awing other nations into meek submission, the new ships heightened tensions between the great powers. Feeling themselves compelled to match and then to outdo the British leviathan, they all had to give up on the battleships they already possessed and come up with the money to construct brand new and catastrophically expensive ships. Rather than peace and the supremacy of the Royal Navy, exorbitance and belligerence followed in the Dreadnought’s wake.

This outcome should hardly be surprising since every weapon introduced down through the ages has been quickly copied and adopted. Iron, stirrups, chariots, cannon, the Monitor and the Merrimack, and every other technological advance in killing have spread from nation to nation, from army to army. The Philistines managed to keep iron out of the hands of their enemies but such control has always proved to be difficult. The Admiralty had gambled that the ruinous cost of building such a monster might deter the other navies of the world, but in the choice between guns and butter, even the poorest of nations will arm themselves no matter what the consequences. North Korea has demonstrated that even a poor country and a minor power can acquire the most powerful and terrifying weaponry if they are ruthless enough to condemn their own citizens to indigence, famine, and pestilence.

A gigantic floating weapon that will fill any opponent with terror and allow a government to impose its will appears in the movie Star Wars. The Empire built the Death Star to be the ultimate weapon but no weapon is ever really ultimate. The gargantuan battles station turned out to be vulnerable to small fighters and was destroyed by X Wings at the Battle of Yavin. During the Second World War, the mightiest ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Prince of Wales, was sunk in much the same fashion by Japanese torpedo bombers.