When Lord Nelson cruised into glory at Trafalgar he did so by ordering his fleet to break up and come into ridiculously close range with an enemy who’s seamanship was terrible. Pounding away at each other, so close that ships rigging and masts got tangled up with each other, the battle was more reminiscent of a bloody knife fight. For all the horror, blood and violence of the fight, it was beyond doubt decisive. The rifles used in World War I far out ranged, fired faster, hit harder, and were protected in a way Nelson could never have dreamed. And yet the raw military power of modern warships could not be harnessed effectively. This left Jutland and most other encounters less than decisive. Why? Metal ships did something very easily that wooden ships never did..sink The sheer weight of shells being launched should have insured far more hits; and by extension more sinkings; than were scored at Jutland. Partly this is explained by a lack of effective communication between Admiral and their fleet. But mostly it was due to a lack of equipment able to take the visual data from the observer and create a firing solution fast enough to keep up with the speed of maneuvering ships in battle.
By the time of World War II new technology tried to address this issue. Radar in theory should have made every salvo a hit, yet they were not. Why?
First of all the problem with radar is it can be detected far more easily than trying to use it for targeting. Targets with simple radar detectors could maneuver out of the way. Often the firing solutions from radar took too long to be calculated to be of any use; the target had moved past the solution or it’s correction. Next radar was new, those using it were new both to it’s strengths and weaknesses. And radar has weaknesses, ground clutter distorts the bounce back. Atmospheric conditions can render images indistinct even at very close ranges. Ships moving in front of the bounce back block enough signal to render the image useless or confused. The target can place it’s prow toward the radar signal and reduce it’s profile confusing the operator into thinking the enemy ship is further away than in reality.
All this being said, what made the battles of Guadalcanal such masterpieces for the IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) was their reliance on visual contact. Eye sight cannot be detected other than seeing the observing ship. This is not as easy as it sounds, and the Japanese were VERY good at seeing first and firing first. Does this mean that visual detect was the best way to observe, spot, and fire? No, a mix of both radar and visual detection had to be employed. Eye sight could be confounded by atmospherics just like radar, although the conditions were different. This meant that often what confounded one did not confound the other.
In writing Steam & Steel I realized quickly that the ability to see your target was in many ways the heart of modern naval warfare in a way it never was for Lord Nelson. Nelson was confronted with having to locate and move toward the enemy. He had to bring his ships into range and fire. Visually speaking it’s pretty easy to engage an enemy who’s twenty feet way. But Admiral Mikawa KNEW where the Allied fleet was before the battle of Savo Island he simply sailed down to meet them. He chose night to engage accepting the problems of night sailing in battle. The Admiral’s real problems began when his fleet engaged the enemy; unlike Nelson who lost all control as the guns roared, Mikawa had not only to select targets in the dark, hit the right targets, maintain contact with his fleet and hope the confusion he caused would cover his escape after. His ability to do this fell squarely on the shoulders of his spotters. Steam & Steels assumes that simply ‘seeing’ your enemy is not one of your problems but in fact IS YOUR PROBLEM.