USS Florida (BB 30) ca. 1918.
The article below appeared concurrent with the commissioning of the first Smith-class destroyers.
On 29 September 1910, the author placed Paulding into commission as commanding officer. He later championed the battle cruiser and, in 1914, commanded the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla.

The Destroyer—Our Naval Weakness
Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 36 No. 2—June 1910—Whole No. 134, Pages 469–480.
A great deal has been both said and written upon the question of our naval preparedness. Always the controversy has hinged and centered about the number and size of our battleships. These monster dreadnoughts have so filled the mind that we have hypnotized ourselves into believing that such war ships are invulnerable. We arm them each with a dozen 12-inch guns and nearly a score of 5-inch guns and are quite sure that we have launched forth a warship ready to fight any enemy.

That we have omitted from this vessel something vital to its defense no one apparently has considered, or if they have but little noise is being made about it.

No one in his sober senses would send the Florida or the Utah out to fight without its 12-inch guns or even without its 5-inch battery, yet we would send these ships out to fight, if war should come, with something lacking which is just as important to its existence. There will be lacking something which in commercial life everyone knows is necessary. Would we dream of locking up a ten million-dollar bank for the night and leave it unguarded until morning, without protection from the attacks of robbers or the invasion of fire? The numerical strength of these night-watchmen depends directly upon the known frequency of bold robberies in the neighborhood or strictly speaking the quantity of daring robbers operating.

The destroyer is the night-watchman for the battleship, and the number necessary to safely protect it depends directly upon the known number of attacking torpedo vessels available for use by a possible enemy.

For those who have not followed the evolution of the destroyer a short historical sketch will be attempted here before setting forth a few arguments to prove its necessity as a component part of a fighting fleet.

At the inception of the steam epoch the automobile torpedo began its slow process of development. This development was from the start a steady growth. First, the range of the weapon was scarcely more than a few hundred of yards. Not so long ago that we can all remember it was barely 500. In its early stages it was not considered a weapon of accuracy, rather the reverse. It was thought by many to be more dangerous to friend than foe. The torpedo-boat was the next and natural step in its development, for a small vessel was necessary and one having high speed to carry out the supposed visionary aims of the torpedoists—to be able at night to approach within the danger are of the torpedo it carried before the big ship could discover its presence. These small craft of necessity were speedy. They were small because it was necessary to approach very close before the weapons they carried could be used. The visibility range of a search-light at this time was about 1,500 yards, and the torpedo-boat’s aim was to get as close as possible before being discovered and then its speed would help it remain under fire a minimum time before it brought it to torpedo range.

The torpedo-boat first made its appearance as an adjunct to the fleet in about 1886. Its displacement at this time was less than 100 tons, and its speed about 20 knots an hour. From this time on it gradually increased in size and speed until in 1896 the torpedo-boat displacement was slightly over 125 tons and its speed about 23 knots.

The next evolution was the destroyer. This new type of vessel became necessary, for even at this time the dangerous character of the torpedo-boat was recognized; armed as it was with at most an inaccurate weapon. In the war between Chile and Peru in the eighties, the possible danger of the torpedo was pointed out, and during the revolution in Chile in the early nineties a battleship fell victim to a torpedo fired at night from a large torpedo-boat. During the Japanese-Chinese war in the middle nineties, torpedo-boats were freely used by the Japanese; no results, however, were accomplished worthy of note. Many torpedoes were fired but few, if any, serious hits were made. In our war with Spain the torpedo received a great blow. Not because of the fault of the materiel, but because of the woeful lack of initiative displayed by the Spaniards, and one our part, by the stringent orders from the Navy Department to our few torpedo-boats to take no unnecessary risks. In the war between Japan and Russia, fresh in the memory of everyone, much damage was done by the Japanese torpedo-craft and much more might have been accomplished if the Japanese had been willing to risk the destruction of their small attackers. At the first part of this war Japan was forced to husband her resources for there was a second enemy’s fleet at home which had to be taken account of. In the final battle, when the second Russian fleet was destroyer the water was too rough for these small vessels to accomplish much more than a few brilliant but fruitless dashes at the enemy; some in broad daylight. However, the usefulness, nay the necessity of the destroyer was clearly demonstrated.

After the war opinion was crystallized upon the subject of the destroyer. Naval men fully appreciated the injurious moral effect upon the crews of the big ships, which were as matters stood at the mercy of a will-timed and planned attack in force by a flotilla of torpedo-craft. The salvation of the big ship lay first in the destructive power of its small guns aided by several more or less inefficient search-lights to illuminate the torpedo boat after its discovery; second, in the effectiveness of the torpedo nets carried by many of the ships; and third, in the known inaccuracy and erraticism of the then existing torpedo.

The duty of the destroyer was to run down the attacking torpedo-boats and sink  them with the fire of their small rapid-fire guns. The destroyer was also armed with torpedo tubes in order that it might be used as an attacking torpedo vessel; but its main function was to defend the battleship at night.

The naval student at this time was quite sure of the correct destiny of these two types of torpedo vessel. The smaller he classed as a weapon of defense—to guard the home coast from raids by the enemy’s major warships. The larger he called an offensive weapon—to destroy the smaller defensive type and allow the capital ships to perform without peril their duties of blockade and similar war measures upon the enemy’s hearthstone.

The above definitions are somewhat confusing, and perhaps need a closer explanation. The torpedo-boat in being a weapon of defense became in the hands of daring defenders a dangerous weapon of offense. It could issue forth from its hiding places in shallow waters, seek out and attack the enemy’s battleships and cruisers. The destroyer, on the other hand, being a weapon of offense, remained with the attacking fleet and in the attacks of the torpedo-boats on the fleet became a weapon of defense; guarding the helpless capital ships at night from the rushes of their small antagonists.

As the years went on the accuracy and range of the torpedo vastly improved until to-day the latest torpedo has a range of from four to six thousand yards, and its accuracy is sufficiently true to make it distinctly a dangerous antagonist. The torpedo-boat has gradually increased in size to make it more seaworthy and habitable; for as the range of the torpedo increased the necessity for diminutive proportions to prevent an early discovery lessened. The latest of this type are of a displacement of about 250 tons and with a speed of 26 knots. It can be readily understood that on a dark night a craft of this tonnage painted a dark green and approaching bows on might well be able to reach a distance of 5,000 yards of an enemy’s fleet without it being any the wiser, though the ships of the fleet be equipped with the most modern and high-power search-lights.

Again, if the size of the torpedo-boat is increased the destroyer must follow suit if she is to fulfill her destiny. The tonnage of this type of vessel, however, has been determined by the particular strategic and tactical duty of the fleet with which it will serve. In our own case, it must keep the sea for weeks at a time if it is to accompany the battle fleet. It must be large enough to carry coal and stores for these long intervals, and besides be fairly habitable for the crew. Thus our latest destroyers have a tonnage of nearly 1,000.

It will be seen the destroyer’s identity to-day is the same as that given by those who first evolved it with the additional duty of engaging and destroying similar vessels of the enemy and also to attack as a torpedo-boat. In other words, the destroyer has merged into a large sea-keeping torpedo-boat, useful for both offense and defense. Offense against the enemy’s battleships and defense against the attacks of its sisters in the enemy’s ranks.

The Battleship’s Power of Defense Against the Attack at Night of a Destroyer or Torpedo-Craft.

The modern battleship carries from eight to ten search-lights of from 30 to 36 inches in diameter. These lights can, under the most favorable circumstances, discover an attacking destroyer at a maximum distance of about 5,000 yards. It will be noted that the discovery will take place within the range of the modern torpedo. After discover the battleship has for its protection a score of more of light guns ranging in calibre is the 5-inch. The guns are so divided that all directions are covered with its share of guns. The main battery guns are not intended to be used at night against torpedo-craft. There are two good reasons for this: the first being that the interference of smoke is great, and the second and better reason is that sufficient ammunition cannot be carried. The number of torpedo-craft that can be fired upon by a single battleship then will be equal to the number of search-lights available for illumination. If one more boat is attacking than the battleship has search-lights then that boat can attack absolutely not under fire. It will be noted that one of our battleships armed with but eight search-lights would fare badly if it were attacked, when alone, by a flotilla of ten destroyers.

The Accuracy of Gun Fire at Night

The best understanding of this can be had with a study of gun fire in the day of which there is some authentic data, and then by a simple common-sense application we can arrive at what seems probable at night.

In the day time at a distance of from five to six thousand yards, the range known as accurately as the perfected range finders will give, the Japanese battleships and cruisers, firing under the most favorable conditions, that is being practically not under fire themselves, for the Russian accuracy was deplorable, managed to make, according to the most optimistic reports, about 10 per cent of hit on the hulls of the opposing fleet with the large calibre guns. Guns vary in accuracy almost directly with the calibre; therefore guns of three inches in calibre might be expected to make, if firing under like conditions, about 2.5 per cent, and the 5-inch guns double this percentage. Now, at night, the range is only a 1,000 yards less and absolutely unknown, and the target, instead of being of the area of a battleship, is that of a sharp-bowed, lean-flanked destroyer. Instead of the target standing out distinctly against the horizon it is feebly illuminated by a search-light almost at the latter’s extreme limit. Instead of being wakeful and steady the gun-pointer and gun’s crew have just been awakened from their sleep. Is it possible with such conditions to make even one-half of the above percentages? My estimate would be less than half of that again. Picture the suddenness of a torpedo attack. The alarming, nay more, terrifying intelligence that a flotilla of destroyers is attacking. At night everything is changed; brave men are often cowards at night. Then the bungling of the search-light operators in their anxious haste to find the dreaded enemy so that their gun-pointers may see to shoot. The terror in the gun-pointer’s eye, mistaking the splashes of his own shell for the enemy whom he had seen but a moment before. Taking all in all a fair estimate would be one half of one per cent. This will mean that 200 shots will have to be fired at each attacker before even one hit per destroyer is made, and even this hit may not prove mortal.

In other words, a battleship cannot safely defend itself at night against the attacks of torpedo vessels. That this is true is not a new theory; all naval men of whatever nationality understand it, and all see that safety lies alone with the destroyers that will accompany the battle fleet in time of war. How many destroyers will be needed for this cannot be calculated mathematically, much depends upon the energy and intelligence of the personnel of the enemy and also upon the same factors in our own personnel.

It would, however, be interesting to see how many of these vessels other nations believe are necessary, if the number of destroyers per battleship and armored cruiser of their offensive fleets can be taken as a logical criterion.

Table 1
























United States




The above table is taken from the latest available information at hand and excludes all old types which would not be used in the first line of battle.

Table 2

Number of Destroyers
per battleship and
armored cruisers










United States


The above is a very poor showing for the United States.

Again, many hold that all the available sea-going destroyers should be with the battleships and that the armored cruisers must take their chances against the enemy’s destroyers; this seems quite logical for an armored cruiser is not in the true sense of the word a capital ship and if sunk or disabled, although perhaps, embarrassing to the commander-in-chief would not “count in the news of the battle.” Lord Nelson never even mentioned the loss of a frigate which is the prototype of the armored cruiser of to-day.

With this assumption our figures will change:

Table 3

Number of Destroyers
per battleship










United States


The United States is at a great tactical disadvantage until the Panama Canal is built and even afterwards due to the great distances necessary for the destroyers to steam in order to carry out a war against a possible enemy.

This disadvantage is met in our latest destroyers by giving them a large steaming radius. To give them this radius of action the size and cost of the destroyer has been greatly increased and the speed made moderate thus allowing more space for coal. The latest class will not be called upon to do greater than 30 knots.

England, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan on the other hand, if they must fight will fight very likely near their home base and can utilize all of their destroyers and even their larger torpedo-boats. Thus we see that the United States is even more handicapped than appears in the above tables.

From the above it is seen that the countries worthy of being reckoned with as formidable naval powers have hit upon the figure two per capital ship (battleship and armored cruisers) with an extra allowance made for casualties—destroyers under repairs or disabled—and 3.7 per battleship alone.

When the Atlantic Fleet left San Francisco on its trip around the world and its return to the Atlantic coast many laymen were skeptical of its avowed peace mission; yet it was plain as day to every officer in the fleet. The fleet would never have been sent out helpless if there had been the remotest chance of war with a foreign power, and that it was helpless was only too well understood. It is true that there were five destroyers in Manila Bay which might have joined the fleet upon its arrival there, but these five would not have been a drop in the bucket and could not have been depended upon to guard the fleet and the nation’s honor during the night. This was the sign of peace heralded far and wide and all the nations understood. When it left Hampton Roads, Admiral Cone and his flotilla of destroyers went with it; this voyage was not a war move, yet the fleet went prepared; not well prepared, but the Navy Department did the best it could under the circumstances. Every available destroyer, seaworthy to make the cruise around south America was sent to join Admiral Cone. With the addition of the destroyers on the Pacific and in Manila Bay the fleet would have been as well guarded as was possible with our limited number of destroyers.

On the other hand, we are going to the other extreme in building submarines. These craft are entirely for the defense of our shores. The submarine has no real tactical value unless the enemy is on our coast. It cannot accompany the battle fleet; it may, however, be used with the second line of defense or be held as a potential threat to an enemy who shows signs of molesting the tranquillity of our homes.

That destroyers are vitally needed appears only too plainly, and that we all have not awakened to this injurious omission in our naval budget is to be deplored. The Navy Department has asked for a few destroyers each year; and suddenly awakening to the urgent necessity in 1907, five were ordered and again in 1908 ten more, and then in 1909 six more, but this year the few recommended were stricken from the appropriation bill.

It is just as unwise a policy to take the torpedo-defense guns and search-lights off the capital ships of the fleet as to refuse to give our vessels the necessary destroyer protection. Without it we cannot hope to be successful against an enemy who is well prepared. The personnel of our should would be soon worn to a frazzle through anxious watchings during the long dark nights, while the enemy could be peacefully sleeping, secure in the knowledge that for each battleship and cruiser of their fleet two or maybe four lynx-eyed destroyers were watching for the torpedo-craft of the enemy.

If a fleet is to be denied this necessary and really vital protection, the night-watchmen as it were, it would really be far better to take off the search-lights and torpedo-defense guns of small calibre, and this be sure that the capital ships will not herald their position far and wide to a seeking flotilla of the enemy’s destroyers. If the fleet remains dark the flotilla may miss them and if the fleet is discovered by the enemy’s destroyers after driving off our few guardians it will be so close that with a large field night-sight the gun-pointer can probably shoot as accurately as if his target were illuminated by a search-light.

It will be seen that in order to have the calculated quota of destroyers by the most conservative estimate, table 2, 28 must be added immediately to the navy list and for each capital ship built there should be built to protect it against night attacks two high speed sea-going destroyers.

If we go to the extreme, however, and take table 3 as the true necessity then we should build at once 53 large type sea-keeping destroyers to be the night guardians of the 24 battleships composing our first line of battle.

Every weapon of war has its pessimists. Those who will not take seriously the modern torpedo are many. They scoff at its accuracy and call it a weapon of danger to the ship firing it. The optimist on the other hand goes to the other extreme and claims for it more than it really deserves. The conservatist, however, considers it merely a weapon of chance and has figured its value mathematically.

Suppose a fleet of 24 battleships is cruising at night of an enemy’s coast. Imagine this fleet to be without guarding destroyers. The fleet’s formation is in two columns the distance between these parallel columns being 1,600 yards. The distance between single ships in column from foremast to foremast is 400 yards.

Out in the night a flotilla of destroyers is seeking to attack these battleships. Suddenly a search-light flashed out and holds an object dimly illuminated. The alarm has been given and the eyes of the fleet, over 200 search-lights, are boring their bright shafts of light through the darkness, sweeping fitfully and uncertainly about. Now one and then another dim object is held while the small guns of the battleships are spitting furiously. The flotilla is steaming at 30 knots’ speed and at wide enough intervals between the 10 components to allow each boat to dire three torpedoes aimed at the centre of the vast illumination ahead of it. From the head to the tail of the battleship column the available target is 400 yards times one less than the number of battleships plus the length of one ship, or about 5,000 yards. Imagine the flotilla is armed with a 6,000-yard torpedo, and has been discovered at this distance. In just one minute the flotilla will be 5,000 yards away, in two minutes, 4,000 yards away. The flotilla commander is waiting the time to arrive when the shots of the enemy will make it imperative for him to fire and withdraw. He must not risk his destroyers unnecessarily, for there are many more nights and torpedoes are plentiful and not expensive. A rocket soars heavenward from the destroyer of the flotilla commander and at the signal 30 torpedo have been launched on their errand of chance.

Now let us see what are the mathematical probabilities in favor of those 30 torpedoes as they speed toward the battleships 4,500 yards distant.

Each destroyer fires three torpedoes, making a total from the 10 boats of 30 torpedoes.

Take the length of a battleship as 500 feet.

Then the battleship target in the first column will be 2,000 yards and the spaces between the ships will be 3,000 yards.

The angle subtended by the flotilla at this distance, viz., 5,000 yards will be 58 degrees if the attack is normal to the column and it is only fair to allow that a torpedo will run accurately within this angle. Then each torpedo fired will have a probability of hitting one of the battleships of the first column represented by 2/5; that is out of each five shots fired two hits should be made. Then with 30 shots every battleship of the first column will be struck, provided, of course, the hits are properly distributed, which, of course, they will not be. Again 12 torpedoes having hit, 18 have passed through the spaces and their chances of hitting the second column will be represented by the figures 7/18, or out of the 18 torpedoes, seven will probably hit; making a total of 19 hits out of a total of 30 shots.

The above has been given merely to show wherein the danger of a weapon considered inaccurate may lie. The destroyer need not creep upon its powerful antagonist until it is so close that the torpedo cannot miss. It is now merely a gambling venture and one in which the poor battleship can have no part. The victim must simply sit and look pleasant and after the torpedo has missed give a sigh of relief and say, “never touched me.” The destroyer really, quite contrary to tradition, need not be in any real danger; at the moment of discovery when the terrifying but really harmless, or nearly so, fire of the battleship is being directed upon it, it can fire its torpedoes and retreat to wait another favorable opportunity later in the night.

No one would contemplate meeting an arm of the enemy’s forces with an arm of less range and at distances where the enemy can destroyer with safety to itself.

The combination of range and accuracy of the torpedo defense battery, search-lights and conditions of night firing at torpedo craft forces this condition of disadvantage. The only way in which the forces for defense can be utilized is to decrease the range, i.e., advance the guns and search-lights to a distance such that they can destroy the torpedo-carrying vessels before the torpedo can destroy the battleship—this means destroyers.

It must be remembered as an axiom, that the enemy will naturally choose for attack the weakest point in our defense. If we are short on battleships, he will probably force a day action. If we are short on destroyers and he is proportionally strong, the enemy will avoid a day battle and depend upon his stronger arm to throw the fortunes of war in his favor.

We are only as strong as our weakest arm. Surplus battleships will be of no avail if we are invitingly weak in destroyers.

This article has been made explicit and elementary because the subject lends itself to be handled in that manner. That we are alarmingly weak in destroyers can be no secret; the statistics are where everyone may read.

The point is, are destroyers vital to the welfare of an offensive battleship fleet? If so, it is not our duty to point this out to those who are empowered to keep the naval arm of the nation strong enough to defend the honor and traditions of our nation?

That destroyers are indispensable to the fleet seems axiomatic and the number needed should be not less than those maintained by a possible rival. Four per battleship does not seem excessive when the possible destructive power of the torpedo is considered. This is the figure maintained by the principal navies of the world. We must remember that the destroyer cannot be built in a month. In the ordinary course of events two years is the minimum of time to turn out the finished product.

The fleet must be defended at night by its destroyers; that to the writer is the one big question to which the entire service should direct its attention if the navy is to be prepared to render to the country a proper return on the day of battle.