[Warning, Spoilers ahead who haven’t seen Star Trek: Discovery Season 3]
This is a bit of a fun blog post. inspired by the most current season of Star Trek Discovery (as of December 2020). In the 5th episode of Season 3 (entitled “Die Trying”), the USS Discovery return to Starfleet when they find the Federation’s deep-space HQ. They see for the first time the fleet’s advanced ships, marvelling at all the starship porn on the viewscreen and outside their windows. One remarkable example is the following.
Here we have Stamets and Reno observing USS Voyager, registration code NCC 74656-J. On the bridge Tilly comments that this is “10 generations of evolution”, although Owosekun corrects here that it is 11. The next episode, we learn that the Discovery, having been refit to modern standards is now the NCC 1031-A. These, along with the comment that Voyager is a “32nd century Intrepid Class” ship has set parts of the internet aflutter. 1 The idea that a new registration letter may represent significant upgrades instead of a completely new hull/ship has upset the common understand of Starfleet’s practices when it comes to perceiving ships’ identity. Of course, this is “merely” a fictional organization in a TV show, so I think it’s possible to continue enjoying it without worrying too much about what it means for “canon”. It does present an interesting opportunity to talk about how other real-word navies have named, categorized, identified their ships. In this post, I’ll be looking at examples of both navies perceiving ships as the same even when much of the fabric is changed, and of examples where the identification changes, even if much of the ships is the same.
I think the closest example to the speculation about the Starfleet’s practices is that of the Royal Navy during the age of sail. From the 17th Century onwards, the Royal Navy employed a practice of ‘rebuilding’ warships that obfuscates the reality of the material existence of individual ships.2 Ships represented major investments- not just in terms of the money to build them, but also as political symbols. Getting money to build ships was always a political fight- rebuilding ships, on the other hand, was much more acceptable to parliament. The reality is that rebuilding ships often effectively involved building a new ship, with a minimum of the former ships’ timbers being reused.
Consider the case of HMS Victory, familiar to us as Nelson’s’ flagship, and which is in a drydock in Portsmouth. Originally completed in the 1760s, she was substantially rebuilt 1814-1816. In the 20th and 21st centuries, she’s has substantial repairs on three occasions (1903, 1922 and 1955). Andrew Lambert has estimated that less than 5% of her current fabric/material was present at the Battle of Trafalgar, and yet it is still entirely the Victory. If Starfleet is doing something similar, with continuous rebuilds, it would certainly be following well-established historical precedents (especially if they are no capable of building new starships to replace those that are lost/retired).
On the flip side, there are lots of examples of ships being relabelled/renamed/recategorized as they are rebuilt and refit. Although this doesn’t exactly fit what happened in Discovery, it’s still fun to talk about.
The final phases of the Second World War were extremely disruptive for warship building programs, and several different nations had ships that were either finished right at the end of the war, and were immediately obsolete (like all-gun cruisers), or ships whose building was stopped, and then later, resumed to radically different designs. We’re going to have a short look at one example of each, just to put things in perspective.
The first example are the United States Navy’s Albany Class cruisers. These three ships (the Chicago, Albany, and Columbus) were converted from the related Baltimore and Oregon City classes of heavy cruiser. After serving following the Second World War as all-gun cruisers, they were taken in hand and drastically rebuilt to be Guided Missile Cruisers.
Here you can see the radical differences between the Chicago as it originally served, and following the refit. Everything above deck was removed and replaced with new weapons, sensors and superstructure. Accordingly, as they were so completely changed, the class of ships was renamed the Albany Class, after the first to be launched.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Royal Navy was doing something similar with their Tiger class cruisers. Originally ordered as part of the gun-cruiser Minotaur class, they were originally ordered and construction began in 1941 and 1942. They were not actually accepted into service- and to a greatly modified design in 1959 – 1961. During that time, the ships received several different names. The Bellerophon became Tiger, the Defence became Lion, and the Blake was renamed to Tiger, and then back to Blake.
Above is an image of the Tiger as she was originally brought into service. As you can see, they have two twin 6″ turrets, and two twin 3″ turrets, to very different and modern designs. (The 3″ guns were also used on Canadian warships during this period). After barely a decade, the Tiger and Blake were redesigned and rebuilt as helicopter cruisers, designed to carry 4 of the Westland Wessex or Sea King helicopters. This was a half-measure, which was not entirely useful and the surge of inflation made them incredibly costly. As such, only two of the three were converted. The Blake returned to service in 1969, while the Tiger was returned to service in 1972. These ships in their new configuration were finally removed from service in 1979 and 1978 respectively, barely two decades after their initial introduction.
There are certainly other examples, for example the Swedish Navy has a habit of reclassifying their submarines when they receive refits- such as two submarines of the Västergötland class becoming the Södermanland class. I hope that this has give you a little insight into how the Earth’s navies have rebuilt, reclassified, renamed warships and might provide a little comfort for those who are confused by the USS Voyager J.
- This has been described at length in the works of JD Davies and others, including Richard Endsor’s The Master Shipwright’s Secrets and my own Westminster Model Navy.