The Navy has a long, proud history of leading in energy innovation and change, according to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. "From sail to coal to oil to nuclear and now to alternative fuels, the Navy has led the way," he said during a speech Sept. 11, 2013, to the National Defense University. Such was the case 123 years ago today, Nov. 18, 2013, when USS Maine was launched in New York. And with her, as with each new first-in-its-class ship since then, she featured some of the best technological advances of her time.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Navy had only 600 ships, mostly wartime purchases made of timber. By 1879, the Navy had whittled down to 142 ships, where only 48 were available for service. ?The 48 ships that were available were outdated, wooden or ironclads. With Congress concerned more about rebuilding the country after the end of the Civil War, little was done to maintain the Navy. That is until 1883, when a British-built warship called Riachuelo was delivered to Brazil that gave South America an edge in sea power. Hilary A. Herbert, the chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee in 1883, warned Congress: "if all this old navy of ours were drawn up in battle array in mid-ocean and confronted by the Riachuelo it is doubtful whether a single vessel bearing the American flag would get into port."
President Chester Arthur began the Navy's modernization and with the Navy Act of 1883, four new steel cruisers were authorized and then later the Navy's first armored battleships, USS Maine and USS Texas. A contest was held to pick a designer for the ships. For Maine, it was Theodore D. Wilson, who created a cross between the lighter armored cruiser and a heavier battleship. Similar to another armored cruiser, Great Britain's HRM Inflexible, Maine's turrets were en echelon, placed so either could fire and not affect the other, and were offset from the ship.
Designed originally as an armored cruiser, at 6,682 tons, she became the first of a class of armored battleships with 60 tons of nickel-based steel on her hull. Maine's power plant was given the highest priority for its fighting strength, also a first for a U.S. capital ship. The ship's two inverted vertical triple-expansion steam engines were a departure from previous ships that had their engines mounted horizontally so they could be protected below the waterline. Maine's engines were more efficient, had lower maintenance costs and could produce higher speed. The ship's high and low pressure cylinders were separated to give the ship greater flexibility when the ship was running under lower power, so the high and intermediate power cylinders could be run together as a single compound engine for economical running. Originally designed with a three-mast rig in case of engine failure and for long-range cruising, one mast was removed in 1892 after the ship was launched, but before she was completed.
Upon her commissioning on Sept. 17, 1895, USS Maine was sent to protect American interests in Cuba, which was struggling to fight for independence from Spanish rule. It was there, in Havana harbor in 1898, where an explosion would bring down the Maine, killing most of her crew. Her sinking would become the tipping point for the beginning of the Spanish-American war. Nearly 125 years later, the newest platform to hit the seas is the first-in-its-class aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), which was commissioned Nov. 9, 2013. The Ford-class aircraft carriers, like Maine in her time, employ the next generation of naval technology.
Just as the Navy recovered from the stagnant growth of post-Civil War years, today's Navy continues to adapt and adjust to the challenging budgetary times now. "We have the most advanced platforms in the world, but quantity also has a quality all its own," Mabus said at the National Defense University. "Twelve years ago, on 9/11 2001, our fleet stood at 316 ships. By 2008, after one of the great military build-ups in American history, that number had dropped to 278 ships."
In 2008, the Navy put four ships under contract. Since then, another 60 ships have gone under contract and by 2019 the current plan will return the fleet to 300 ships, Mabus said. "Initiatives to spend smarter and more efficiently through things like competition, and multi-year buys, and, frankly, by driving harder bargains on behalf of taxpayer dollars, have created the way to provide our nation and our Navy with the platforms we need to execute our missions." The U.S. Navy must be prepared not only for times of war, but more importantly, during times of peace, as evidenced with the quick deployment of USS George Washington to assist with humanitarian relief in the Philippines after the category 5 Typhoon Haiyan struck in the Pacific Nov. 7, 2013. "In peace we will still deploy, day after day, year after year, just as we have for 238 years," Mabus said. "We respond to every crisis when the nation calls, whether it's in combat or in response to a natural disaster... Before the bell rings and long after the guns go silent, presence means we are where it counts, not just at the right time, but all the time." He added a strong and agile U.S. Navy assures America's allies and partners that "we are there, and assure those who may wish our country and allies harm that we're never far away. That is American seapower."