On 6 June, I was invited to speak at Navy Warfare Development Command’s Junior Leaders Innovation Symposium. NWDC put on a great event and a lot of good material was presented. You can visit the website and find the slides that went with the presentations, as well as a lot of great reading material like LT Ben Kohlmann’s article on Disruptive Thinkers from Small Wars Journal (Ben also presented) and LT Rob McFall’s call for tactical innovation here at USNI Blog (Rob also spoke immediately following my presentation).
The following is the first section of the remarks that I prepared to deliver to a standing room only crowd of 230+ Junior Officers and Junior Enlisted which gathered at NWDC’s headquarters in Norfolk, and the 200+ that joined us online via DCO. As I said, these are my prepared remarks, so if NWDC posts the video online you’ll surely find differences since I worked from notes rather than reading directly from the page as well as some mistakes. I’ve broken the material into three blog posts. This is the first section which tells about Lieutenant William Sowden Sims’ discovery of continuous aim fire and how he developed his discovery, a new gunnery technique which revolutionized naval warfare. The next post we’ll look at what he did after developing his idea in order to get the Navy to adopt it. Finally we’ll look at what Sims learned during his career about innovation and what we can observe from the history.
Good afternoon everyone. I’d like to start this afternoon by thanking Admiral Kraft and the team here at NWDC for inviting me to be a part of today’s event. We’ve had a lot of interesting speakers this morning, full of experience and expertise in innovation. I’m not going to be one of them. I’m just here to tell you a story. I’m a Sailor just like you, maybe not as young as some of you anymore, but with the same desire to make my Service better and more effective. The only reason I’m up here is that I’ve done a little research and I’ve got a story to tell you about a Junior Leader who changed the USN from his stateroom on a ship while deployed in the Pacific.
This is a picture of Vice Admiral William Sowden Sims. William Sims wasn’t always a Vice Admiral though. In 1900 he was a Lieutenant, fresh off staff duty in Europe as an intelligence officer. He had orders to China Station to join the U.S. Navy’s newest and most powerful battleship, the USS KENTUCKY. He arrived aboard the battleship having studied the early Dreadnaught battleships of Europe and the gunnery practices of both potential allies and potential adversaries alike.
Sims checked onboard and discovered that the Navy’s “newest and most powerful” may have been new, but it certainly wasn’t powerful. There were a number of problems with the ship. The hull was armored under the waterline, but the sides and gun turrets were open and un-protected. The gundecks were so low to the waterline that when the ship was fully loaded and took heavy seas water would pour into the turrets. And there was no separation of the magazines and the weatherdecks and gundecks, so a hit from an enemy shell could directly access the magazines.
Sims was incensed. He set about recording the deficiencies. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “The Kentucky is not a battleship at all. She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.”
Sims was a man who had strong opinions. However, he was part of KENTUCKY’S crew, and he couldn’t really change the design of the ship while they were on China Station. So, as he earned his qualifications and began standing his bridge watches, he looked for a way to make the ship better through what today we call tactics, techniques, and procedures or TTP. It was while steaming through the South China Sea and along the coastal cities of China that he met a man from the British Royal Navy who would serve as an inspiration.
Percy Scott was a Captain in 1900, and the CO of the HMS TERRIBLE. Scott was a bit of a pariah, and part of the reason he was on China Station was because of a longstanding feud that he had with an Admiral who was on shore duty back in the home islands. China was as far away from England as they could send him. Scott had developed something that he called “continuous aim fire” and it was a TTP that would revolutionize naval warfare, but he couldn’t get anyone to catch on that it was important.
Gunnery hadn’t changed much since the days of USS Constitution battling it out with the British frigates in the War of 1812. The gun director would estimate the distance to the enemy ship, set the elevation of the gun, and then each time the ship rolled he tried to time the firing so that the shell would hit the enemy. The technique was the reason why most sea battles in the age of sail took place at very close range. This was neither a very accurate way to shoot, nor a very rapid way to engage the enemy.
Scott re-geared the elevation gear on his heavy guns and added new telescopic sights. The new gearing allowed the gun directors to move the gun continually as the ship rolled, and the new sights allowed them to keep the weapon aimed directly at the enemy ship. This meant that gun crews could fire as fast as they could reload.
Aboard KENTUCKY, LT Sims watched the TERRIBLE conduct gunnery practice and he realized this new technique would change naval warfare. A battleship using continuous aim fire could take on an entire squadron of enemy that wasn’t. Accuracy increased dramatically and the rate of fire could quadruple, which resulted in hit rates that increased over 1000% on some ships. Sims immediately sent a report back to the Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, D.C.
Sims befriended Scott, and learned exactly how the Brits were accomplishing their dramatic results. He set about modifying the gear on KENTUCKY and teaching his gunners the new techniques. Soon, KENTUCKY was performing nearly at the same level as TERRIBLE. Sims wrote another report, detailing KENTUCKY’s experience with continuous aim fire, outlining how to modify American guns, and laying out the procedures to be used. Sims waited. And he waited. And he waited. He heard nothing.
His reports arrived at the Bureau of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard. They were read, but the claims of the young Lieutenant out on China Station were outlandish and unbelievable. The reports were filed away in a basement file cabinet and were forgotten. The Bureau of Ordnance had developed the procedures that were in use throughout the Fleet and had designed the guns that were mounted on American Battleships. American hardware and American Sailors were the best in the world, they told themselves. Nobody even considered “what if” the reports were true…they simply couldn’t be. Silly Lieutenant.