Should President Trump Bring Back the Battleship?
Battleships seem to hold a fascination for naval enthusiasts, and debates about bringing them back seem to come up periodically. During his 2015 campaign, candidate Donald Trump stood on the deck of the USS IOWA and proposed recommissioning it into US Navy service. Since then, various social media and news outlets explored what this would mean. With Trump now the President of the United States, and calling for an increase in the size of the Navy, can battleships be brought back? Should they? Will they be re-modernized IOWAs, or something else? Do battleships have a place in a modern navy?
First of all, what is a battleship? It derives from the term “line of battle” ship, or ships of the line. It comes from the days when warships formed lines of battle and delivered broadsides to win an engagement. This existed from the age of sail through World War II. Battleships can be considered the pinnacle of this era of warfare, and are traditionally characterized by heavy guns to inflict damage, and heavy armor to resist the same.
What is the appeal of the battleship that some would say proved obsolete on December 7th, 1941? Obsolescence is an imprecise term. Battleships were still being built in 1941, including six IOWA class, and had well established logistical support. Therefore they don’t meet technical definition of obsolescence (not in production, no parts support). Surface engagements, and battleship engagements specifically, also were not a thing of the past. While carriers enjoyed the limelight, battleships proved decisive in several engagements and were notoriously hard for carrier air power to stop. During the war, only two battleships were sunk by carrier air alone (1). This can be compared to six battleships sunk at sea by naval gunfire, with an opposing battleship being involved in almost every case (2). The only one not sunk after an engagement with opposing battleships was HIEI. She was crippled after a nighttime engagement with cruisers and destroyers. Dead in the water and defenseless she was doomed before aviation assets arrived, and resisted hours of aerial attacks before she sank. While the YAMATO and MUSASHI, the largest and most heavily armored battleships of the war, would seem to prove the effectiveness of naval air against battleships, each kill took hours of dedicated attacks by multiple carrier air wings. Air power could not deliver enough crippling damage, fast enough, to stop a determined force of warships and especially battleships. To illustrate, while air attacks against the Japanese Center Force at Leyte took down one armored behemoth in the formation (of five battleships), the rest were able to continue their mission. Hours of air attacks from multiple carriers killed one battleship which slowly succumbed to the accumulated damage, compared to Surigao Strait where a surface force including US battleships virtually annihilated an opposing Japanese fleet with two battleships in less than an hour, or the WASHINGTON vs KIRISHMA duel where the WASHINGTON took less than 10min to inflict fatal damage on the Japanese battleship. A great “what if” of World War II is what would have happened had a US battleship force been left to guard against the Japanese Center Force and had a true Mahanian battle-line clash. Given the Japanese Center Force performance against destroyers and destroyer escorts, and the fate of the Southern Force at Surigao, it would seem likely a few more Japanese battleship kills would have been credited to naval gunnery and battleship fire had this clash occurred. Worst case might have seen the only underway US battleship casualties of the war… to opposing Japanese battleships.
Thus, you could argue convincingly that battleships still held an important role in World War II naval combat, performing in the exact role they were intended: defeating enemy capital ships. They are remembered for their contributions to shore bombardment and anti-aircraft defense of carriers, but remained more effective and resilient ship killers than any other warship. Carriers may have had the longest reach of any maritime strike platform, but were also the most fragile. Filled with flammable aircraft as well as aviation fuel and munitions, and lightly armored to allow larger air wings, they had nowhere near the ability to resist damage and keep fighting that battleships displayed.
So, why did battleships vanish from the fleets of the world? Lack of an opponent to match against seems the likely answer. In the Cold War, no one was fielding heavily gun armed and armored warships. Most nations were virtually bankrupt, so building and maintaining new battleships was not a priority. In Europe, the threat appeared to be tanks surging across the land, not an opposing battle fleet. Whenever the US recognized a need for heavy gunfire support for naval operations, the IOWA class ships were reactivated. In keeping with Cold War and nuclear war mentality, nuclear rounds were developed for them and storage for nine nuclear 16” shells was provided aboard. During the Reagan build up, all four IOWA class were reactivated and modernized with missiles and self-defense systems. Further plans, never acted upon, included VLS, and even replacing the aft-end of the deck with a flight deck similar to Japan’s “hybrid battleship-carriers” ISE and HYUGA in World War II. All of these were efforts to keep them relevant to modern warfare and not “one trick ponies” effective at naval gunfire support and little else.
After the four IOWA class battleships were retired from service for the final (?) time, the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act required that, as a condition of transfer, two battleships be subject to recall back to the United States upon declaration of a national emergency. The organizations using them as museums therefore had to preserve key parts of the ship so they could be returned to combat status. In return, the Navy provided funding every year to support this preservation. However, in 2010, that requirement was lifted and all four IOWA class battleships are now completely private property. This allowed the organizations that ran them to open additional spaces to the public. Thus, barring some true crisis and the US reclaiming the IOWA class in some form of eminent domain, the door seems closed to reactivating them. But, what about building a modern warship that would have the big guns and armored plate to qualify as a battleship?
At first glance, battleship-like armor seems extremely valuable. In 1985, Soviet Fleet Admiral Gorshokov stated, “You Americans do not realize what formidable warships you have in these four battleships. We have concluded, after careful analysis, that these magnificent vessels are in fact the most to be feared in your entire naval arsenal. When engaged in combat we could throw everything we have at those ships and all our firepower would just bounce off or be of little effect.” (3) Given the known resilience of battleships to damage (with WASHINGTON resisting dozens of hits, including 14” battleship shells from KIRISHMA) it was also stated (perhaps apocryphally) that a battleship CO would simply need to call away “sweepers, man your brooms!” after anti-ship missile hits.
Was this actually true? Would a battleship be immune to modern anti-ship firepower? A battleship seems to have no special immunity to modern torpedoes, designed to explode under a keel and snap it. It should be noted that the two battleships sunk at sea by carrier air power succumbed to torpedo attacks, not bombs. Most modern sea skimming anti-ship missiles would be impacting directly into a battleship’s thick armored belt. While many would have lower kinetic energy than the heavy battleship gun rounds the armor was designed to defeat, newer anti-ship missiles are supersonic and would actually hit with greater kinetic energy compared to subsonic battleship projectiles. Although modern non-armor piercing warheads would probably pancake against the side of the battleship’s armor, any armor piercing modification, say a simple kinetic penetrator or even a shaped charge, would likely defeat armor equivalent to that of the IOWA class. Much smaller missiles defeat bunkers and tank armor. Furthermore, anti-ship ballistic missiles, terminal pop-up missiles, and others arriving in diving trajectories would represent “plunging fire” that battleship style armor, optimized for lower trajectories, could not protect against. If heavily armored ships were to set sail again, it would be easy to retrofit anti-ship missiles with modifications to defeat the armor by optimizing attack angle or incorporating armor piercing warheads. Thus, the armor schematic of an IOWA class would be insufficient against modern threats. If a warship must be heavily armored against subsurface, sea skimming, and diving weapons, one wonders how much tonnage would be left for other vital equipment. Finally, many important parts of a modern warship (radars, communications) cannot be easily armored, so even if the armored sections survived, a ship could be unable to perform its mission (“mission killed”) if these vulnerable antennas were destroyed. Today, avoiding being detected (stealth) and/or avoiding being hit via active and passive defensive systems seem superior to armor plate. Active defensive systems are epitomized by the AEGIS system, and stealth by the new ZUMWALT class destroyer and many warships carry passive defenses in form of jammers and decoys.
If armor, a defining characteristic of battleships, seems to lack a place in modern warfare, what about their other defining characteristic, big guns? The pro side of the argument seems obvious: heavy guns like the 16” weapons on the IOWAs can deliver more tons of ordnance, cheaper, faster, and in more extreme weather conditions compared to aircraft; furthermore, they cannot be shot down by today’s defenses, and present no risk to an aircrew. Yes, but all this comes at the same cost it did in World War II, lack of range. While devastating and effective under 25 miles, targets farther away (or inland) are immune. Additionally, modern combat appears to have migrated away from unguided saturation bombardments to precise strikes. While heavy guns could gain increased accuracy with guidance, their cost advantage over missiles starts to dwindle. The same is true of increasing their range with rocket assist or proposed 16” rounds with SCRAMjet engines. Exhibit A could be the Long Range Attack Projectile (LRAP) for the Advanced Gun Systems (AGS) on the US ZUMWALT class destroyers. These rounds ended up being as expensive, if not more so, than Tomahawk missiles that traveled more than an order of magnitude farther with two orders of magnitude more explosives.
While railguns seem to offer the potential for a revolution in gun-based weapons, they will retain the guidance costs of a powder-launched projectile, and suffer to an even greater degree from a flat and predictable ballistic flight path. Land targets vulnerable to a missile that can optimize its flight path can be shielded easily from a railgun by intervening terrain or civilian infrastructure.
So, if large caliber guns are not as effective as missiles for a modern battleship, could it use missiles as the modern surrogate for guns? Well, now we have eliminated the two defining characteristics of a battleship, heavy armor and large guns, and replaced them with stealth/defensive systems and missiles. These are what navies the world over already have in service today. Perhaps battleships will remain a tribute to a bygone era of naval warfare, at least for now.
(1) The battleships at Pearl Harbor (and Taranto) were not underway at sea, and most were returned to action later in the war. PRINCE OF WALES and REPLUSE were sunk by land based, non-carrier-capable aircraft. HIEI was crippled by surface action and finished off by carrier-capable land based aircraft. ROMA was sunk by a land based heavy bomber employing a radio-controlled glide bomb (early ASCM). BISMARCK was crippled by a lucky air attack and sank after prolonged surface battle with British battleships. YAMATO and MUSASHI, the Japanese “Super Battleships” bear the distinction of being sunk at sea by carrier air alone. However, by that time Imperial Japan was losing the war and their battleships were effectively on suicide missions without air support. YAMATO’s crew definitely knew they were on a one-way trip to beach her on Okinawa.
(2) BISMARCK in 1941, HIEI and KIRSHIMA in 1942, SCHARNHORST in 1943, FUSO and YAMASHIRO in 1944. HIEI was crippled by cruisers and destroyers, and finished off by air power. The rest were sunk in engagements involving opposing battleships.
(3) Phillip Kaplan, World War Two at Sea: The Last Battleships (South Yorkshire, UK: Pen and Sword, 2014), p. 151