Book Review: U.S. Naval Weapons by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman’s U.S. Naval Weapons focuses on the development history of weapons used by the U.S. Navy from the “New Navy” of 1883 to (the then present) 1983. As the subtitle notes, guns, missiles, mines, and torpedoes of every sort are covered. To some extent, bombs are also covered. Needless to say, this book covers a lot of ground!

A quick note on Friedman’s and Campbell’s books on naval weaponry. Friedman’s U.S. Naval Weapons is heavily narrative-based, in addition to providing many statistics and data points. In contrast, John Campbell’s Naval Weapons of World War Two is largely a reference work composed of pure technical specifications of WWII naval weapons of different countries but contains no substantive developmental narrative. I don’t mean to imply that Campbell’s book is somehow inferior, however, it should be noted that Friedman’s book covers a far broader time frame, is solely focused on U.S. naval weapons, and has a narrative focused around the developmental history of the weapons. Each book is different in breadth, scope, and use. Each contains valuable information given their respective topics.

The book is divided up into parts which are further divided up into chapters. These logically follow the advancement of weapons technology throughout time. Bear in mind that this book only covers weapons systems up to 1983 (the date of publication). These parts are as follows:

  • I. Guns (surface fire)
    • Includes chapters on design & development, fire control, mounts & turrets, torpedo defense, submarine & light craft, projectiles
  • II. Fleet air defense before 1945
    • Includes chapters on heavy/medium/light AA guns, AA fire control, VT fuze, fighter aircraft, fighter weapons
  • III. Underwater ordnance
    • Includes chapters on ASW strategy & tactics, mines, torpedoes, antisubmarine projectiles, sonar systems
  • IV. Fleet air defense after 1945
    • Includes chapters on wartime & early post-war missiles, 3-T missiles, point defenses, surface-to-air missiles, shipboard guns, fighters, air-to-air weapons, future air defense systems
  • V. Air-to-surface weapons
    • Includes chapters on bomb delivery, bombs, rockets, air-to-surface missiles, tactical standoff missiles, long-range air-to-surface missiles, anti-radiation missiles, harpoon anti-ship missile
  • VI. Surface-to-surface missiles
    • Includes chapters on pre-1945 projects, strategic missiles, tactical missiles, anti-ship missiles, bombardment rockets

Like most of Friedman’s works, this book is packed with information. Considering that it comes in at 280 pages (appendices included), it’s very impressive considering what topics it covers. What I like the most about this book is that it gives the reader some basic principles for how these systems work and the ideas behind them. In this way, the reader isn’t left in the dark about the fundamentals of how fire control, radars, and sonars work. It then provides an explanation for why these weapons were developed and how they were integrated into naval systems, tactics, and doctrine. Not only are the principles behind a certain weapon (say, a particular gun or missile) elucidated on, but also how that weapon developed, what its characteristics are, and what upgrades it received, are also mentioned. That being said, much like Friedman’s design histories, there’s very limited discussion on the operational effectiveness of the weapons themselves. The decision to retain and upgrade existing weapons is more of an indication of their successful implementation.

It quickly becomes obvious that weapons (and the associated systems) themselves are not developed for no reason other than “just because,” but rather, they arise to meet some perceived threat. Budgets, politics, design parameters, and real-world performance then determine whether or not a weapon even moves beyond a prototype, enters production and service, and is successful enough to warrant improvements. In the 30-odd years following WWII, there was no shortage of brand new weapons systems that were dreamed up, promised everything, yet failed spectacularly or fell victim to the vagaries of politics and budgets. Thus, the reader can clearly see trends with much of our current technology appearing in its nascent form in WWII and the years immediately after. The general trend nowadays is to take the successful weapons systems that have proven their capabilities and continuously upgrade them to improve their performance characteristics to meet new threats. This is arguably why, in our current age, we don’t see brand-new weapons systems popping up every few years. Why spend time, money, and effort to develop a totally new system when an existing one can be upgraded or modified to suit your needs? There are, of course, exceptions to this, (such as going zillions of dollars over budget to develop the F-35), but generally speaking, it’s been found to be far more efficient to upgrade existing systems, if possible.

The appendices in this book are excellent. They cover all of the weapons and sensor systems covered in the book and allow the reader to easily reference them in the future. Further data, such as armor penetration statistics for guns, can also be found in the appendices.

The only real downsides to this book are that it’s dated (only to 1983, but still in the Cold War) and that shipboard radar systems are not extensively covered. However, Friedman wrote another book specifically for naval radars.

This is an excellent book for people who want a more in-depth look at naval weapons development and are researching individual weapons, as well. It goes beyond the usual advertising pitch of, “this is the greatest weapon ever, solves all of our defense problems, and does everything under the sun.” A far more nuanced stance is taken and the reader can see that all of these systems had problems that needed to be addressed; some more thoroughly than others. Whenever there were gaps in the defense, a weapon (or variant of an existing one) arose to attempt to plug that gap.

From other reviews that I’ve read, the book doesn’t really account for “every” naval weapon used during the time period covered. It actually misses a couple. That being said, it’s still a very comprehensive look at U.S. naval weaponry and how it developed. Overall, the book is well-organized and the narrative logically takes the reader through pre-war, WWII, and post-war eras to see how these various systems developed. The reader can get a good idea of how guns, missiles, and sensors were integrated to create naval weapons systems and how technology advanced over time. It’s easy to see how much WWII was such a watershed moment in weapons and tactical development and how much our current systems are still based off of the lessons from that conflict. Furthermore, it’s astounding to see how rapidly guided missile technology developed following the war, as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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