The coming electric navy

One hundred years or so ago, Winston Churchill, in his capacity as the First Lord of the Admiralty, worked vigorously to convert the old coal-burning Royal Navy to a newer and more efficient oil-burning fleet. This turned out to be a strategically sound decision despite the fact that it entailed a new dependence on oil that the British Isles could not supply. Oil simply had too many advantages over coal to fret overmuch about the fact that it would have to be produced in and shipped from remote, difficult-to-manage locations around the world. This single fact has, by itself, largely shaped geo-politics across the last century.

Curiously, today the U.S. Navy is undergoing a Churchillian revolution of its own: ships are being converted from oil power to electric power. The change is somewhat subtle, because the electricity comes from onboard gas turbines that in turn are still powered by fossil fuels. But there are a number of advantages. You can put the gas turbine wherever you want, and you can use the enormous electrical power generated for other purposes, like vaporizing enemy ships and planes with high-power directed energy weapons. Superconducting electric motors can be put in movable pods outside the hull, thereby eliminating the awkward drive shafts that have dominated hull design and dramatically improving maneuverability.

If this sounds a lot like the move to hybrid cars from conventional gas powered cars, it is. The exact same principle is at work, which leads me to speculate that high-power directed energy weapons will be a popular accessory for the 2005 Toyota Prius.

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