The Washington Naval Conference of 1922 can be regarded as the high point in the history of the great steel battleships that used to make up the pride of the world’s navies.

The following article was contributed to the UK Defence Journal by Sam Flint.

It was here that the post war order was laid out plainly, namely, that the British Empire and the United States were to operate the greatest fleets, followed by Japan, Italy and France, at a tonnage ratio of roughly 5:5:3:1:1. Most importantly, it confirmed that the battleship was the ultimate weapon and status symbol of the time.

The increasing value of the battleship had been borne out of two major technological developments. First, the ironclad, and ultimately, the dreadnought. Both produced spells of remarkable naval build-up, as the competing world powers sought to out produce or at least intimidate the others, particularly in the lead up to the First World War.

Taken in a historical context however, the impact of the battleship is a very mixed picture, and has been a topic of fierce debate amongst naval experts. I believe this debate has a contemporary use for today’s navy, as understanding the progression and eventual eclipse of the battleship will provide key evidence as to why our modern navy must contain aircraft carriers, whilst giving us clues as to what may be in store for the future of the successor to the battleship.

Part of the problem with the legacy of the battleship is the limited number of fleet on fleet battles that were actually fought, even in the hay day of the lumbering ships. Pre-Dreadnought examples focus around the Russo-Japanese war and the devastating loss of the Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima in 1905. The only real decisive engagement between steel battleships, the Russians lost six of the eight that sailed across the world to meet the Japanese, signalling the rise of Japan as a naval power and the speedy end of the war. During World War One and World War Two however, despite the commonplace belief in the power of the battleship, there was only one case of fleet on fleet action.

The Battle of Jutland in 1916 was this last great hurrah of the steel battleship. Never again would these mighty boats meet face to face as the major vessels in fleet actions. But crucially, despite heavy British losses, not a single battleship was lost, and the ability of these fleets to decisively change the outcome of a conflict was heavily discredited. Instead, new naval technologies, namely the submarine, came to epitomize the war at sea. Why then did the Washington Naval Conference seemingly sanctify these weapons? Simply put, because the battleship took up a new and crucial role, as a tool of global influence.

The battleship, in its size and power, was the ultimate weapon for gun boat diplomacy, and could be sped around the world to police any incident. The United States didn’t even construct its tonnage worth of boats until long after the treaty was disavowed, it was merely enough for it to have the potential of such great influence.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Second World War, the battleship still had its advocates. These were quickly proved wrong, as crucial naval engagements demonstrated the weakness of the steel battleship. Initially, pocket battleships such as the German Graf Spee ran rings around British ships, its speed and fire power enabling it to strike and evade the Royal Navy. Submarines began crippling British convoys that had too few light naval escorts. But the true death knell for the battleship was the outcome of the Battle of Taranto. The first major air action from an aircraft carrier against naval targets, the Royal Navy took out half of the Italian navy’s battleships with only 21 outdated Swordfish torpedo bombers. As the British Admiral Andrew Cunningham noted, the power of the Navy’s air arm was now plain to see. The age of the aircraft carrier had begun.

Across the Pacific, battleships were limited to shore bombardment in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Peleliu, and even the mighty super battleship Yamato, during a last-ditch attack, was swatted aside by American aircraft. Major naval operations such as Pearl Harbour and Midway, the turning points in the war, were dominated by aircraft carriers. The slow and lumbering steel battleships, once the mightiest vessels in the worlds navies, were proven totally outclassed by their successor.

Aircraft carriers have since replaced the battleship as the capital ships of the modern navy. Heavily armoured boats have been mostly decommissioned, replaced by frigates and fast-moving warships that make up the bulk of the Royal Navy surface combat fleet. But with the advent of anti-ship missiles and ever more advanced submarines, what is the future of the aircraft carrier? Will it go the same way as the battleship?

Already calls on the American navy to produce smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers like the Queen Elizabeth class are emerging.

The argument being put forward by some, is that they are required to make up for the lack of expensive major carriers, though crucially, not to replace them. This runs counter to the old rule that battleships previously followed, the bigger the better. Now, with costs skyrocketing, (the new U.S. Gerald R Ford aircraft carriers come in at $10 billion each) and with the disaster that losing merely one could pose, smaller, more flexible carriers, just like the pocket battleship, are beginning to look more tempting.

Just as with the battleship, the aircraft carrier is merely changing roles. Modern technology may indeed pose a threat to the aircraft carriers dominance, but as the ultimate symbol of power and global influence, the aircraft carrier is the modern-day gunboat. Britain desperately requires her new aircraft carriers if it is to retain its role on the world stage and remain a permanent member of the U.N. security council.

The pair will provide the Royal Navy with a platform to operate air missions across any region or hotspot, and will prevent flagrant Russian taunting when they next choose to sail their carrier, the Kuznetsov, past British shores.

Remember the history of the battleship when discussing aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier is now the new naval super-weapon, providing Britain with global striking capability in a more unstable world of irregular warfare.


  1. As well as adequate escorts, carriers need decent self defence systems. Faced with sophisticated stand-off super/hypersonic ASMs in addition to air attack, we should be at least matching the 3-tier defences of the other large carrier nations. The QE class are only fitted with Phalanx CIWS, the last ditch system. We need at least a medium range SAM(the USN uses ESSM, we could use sea Cepter) & a medium ranged gun or missile system(USN uses RAM, but could be anything from oto 76mm super rapid down to 40mm dardo). It’s short sighted indeed to invest so heavily in swanky fleet carriers without equipping them with decent protection. In war those escorts assumed to always be there to escort the carriers may be incoveniently k.o.’d by enemy action. In a fleet with so few escorts, any war losses will soon remove the ability to provide adequate escorts to our major assets.

    • I agree with you Frank.

      Plenty of others don’t and are happy to rely on escorts or wait until the next gen systems are ready such as DEW.

      I’ve also heard they get in the way of ships operations, but for sure not as much as having no ship cos it was sunk due to a lack of protection.

      Part, I suspect is about money or the lack thereof – but that just shows how little is actually being spent on defence and not an excuse.

  2. I wasn’t impressed or intimidated by the Kuznetsov chunddering its way through the channel. Our enemies will not be intimidated by this missile magnet. They are laughing at us for ruining our navy to fund this folly.
    The new POW will go the way of the last one if anyone is foolish enough to deploy it in situation that would justify its deployment.

  3. You make a good point Frank but we need to concentrate on getting as many F35’s in our carriers as poss as soon as poss. The best anti-air/missile/surface ship/land attack weapon we could have will be the aircraft on our aircraft carriers.

  4. There is one part of our Navy that is seriously lacking and that is Naval Gunfire Support that was original carried out by battleships and cruisers (monitors notwithstanding). It has been recognized by the US Navy that the humble single 5″ (127mm) although devastatingly accurate cannot provide the weight of support needed i.e. the shock and awe that a battery of big guns can provide. The new Zumwalt class has two single 5″ mounts, but there is still doubt whether this will be sufficient provide the necessary support. Unfortunately the navalised 155mm gun system that was originally going to be fitted to the Zumwelt failed due to the cost of its guided munitions

    The reason why the US Navy and especially the US Marines still wants NGS is that it is very cheap per shot compared to sending a precision guided missile (TLAM etc) or the equivalent airstrike. Multiple battery fire will also be very difficult to intercept and can give either a wide area effect or a precision effect. The modern 5″ shell using base bleed has nearly doubled the range of the WW2 equivalent 6″ gun; with rocket assistance this is more than trebled. This means that from the gun line the ship can provide in-shore support to a much greater range (>60Nmiles). The only problem is the weight of explosive that the modern shell can deliver.

    At present we have the 4.5″, which although reasonably accurate is being phased out by lack of industry support and will be replaced by the 5″. However if you look back to the Falkands, it took a number of ships to provide NGS which was carried out by Type 21s (single 4.5″), Leander and County Class (twin 4.5″) and the Type 42s (single 4.5″). A number of ships wore out their gun barrels due to the amount of NGS that was required and also repeatedly ran their magazines dry.

    Today, we have even less frigates or destroyers that can provide NGS. Will we expect a megabucks Type 26 or 45 to cruise around in plain sight whilst providing NGS – hopefully not? These ships will have very specific roles to undertake, so it’ll probably fall to the Type 31. The Type 26 will be armed with the 5″ and the Type 45s will eventually have their 4.5″ guns replaced with the 5″. The Type 31s are as yet undecided. If the decision is based on cost and they go down the route of the 3″ (76mm) this will provide even less NGS (although rate of fire will increase and it can provide CIWS).

    I believe to fulfil this gap we need to increase the fire power of the Type 31 as the Types 26 and 45 are too valuable to put solely on the gun line especially as their job is to protect the carrier/amphibs. By fitting two 5″ gun systems the Type 31 can provide better NGS.

    Back on the subject of Capital ships, I agree a carrier is up there near the top. However, it can never operate alone and requires a task group to maintain its security. Therefore the real capital ship in our arsenal is the SSBN, it can operate on its own, it can defend itself and it is a major if invisible deterrent!

  5. $10 billion for a Ford class aircraft carrier? With a dodgy catapult and arrestor system? That might not be put though shock tests?

    Big Lizzie is looking like a bargain.

    Shame its taken so long to get the T26 into build – the USN is now looking to have proper frigates (instead of just calling the LCS “frigates”), is willing to pay $1 billion a pop and is considering the F100 and FREMM.

  6. It was more like 6:5:3;3:1:1. Britain had about 2 to 2.5 more in Battleship tonnage. I would not of wanted the US Battleship fleet for WW2. Britain still used the 2 navy policy. Others blinked first in 1921 after G3, N3 and I guess they knew about a future I3 that gained some board approval too. There is also O3 (not the Nelson O3). WW2 comes so soon and I feel Britain was banking on no war for at least ten years, then some more after 1930 onwards with a possible war in 1941-42 to the latest at around 1944 with Germany. Parity and overtaking by the US navy comes by 1943. Off topic, I know.

    • I don’t think USA had no more allowance in tonnage. They had to deal with and modernise the stuff they had with their limited budget back then.

  7. Is anyone aware of any measures or research that is being done to counter hypersonic missiles? It’s a lot of hot air and empty boasting at the moment but the day is nearing when they will be a reality. The US probably has a system in the works but the UK is usually slow on the uptake and only acts when it’s already in play, rather than before.

    • I am hoping the UK is being quiet about this, with Rail Guns, particle beam and laser. Also that the UK has more to do with hypersonic missiles, as the UK is no stranger to the history of developing and currently developing hypersonic space planes. It is not foreign to Britain. Just as Rail Guns or electromagnetic catapults have never been.

  8. Already calls on the American navy to produce smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers like the Queen Elizabeth class are emerging. They are not that much smaller but could be bigger with a hull lengthening to a more appropriate length/beam/draught ratio that would not hurt speed etc. These ships, unlike other carriers, are far more developable in the future with future technologies envisaged.

  9. Again, I will attempt to explain the disadvantages of fitting complex weapons on carriers.
    1. FOD- fire a missile and you will cover the flight deck in debris. That will stop flight operations until it is cleared. Sea dart on CVS was a nightmare!
    2. FOD from CIWS already consists of aluminum pushers and orange plastic sabots . These shove the actual bullet out of the barrel towards the target. Once they clear the barrel they go everywhere and I mean everywhere. If you are firing across the deck area the pushers and sabots will kill people or destroy aircraft if it hits them. A trial was conducted across an LPD flight deck using Goalkeeper and it was frightening the amount of FOD and damage that was caused to trial man sized targets and equipment.
    3. Missiles and CIWS systems require safe lanes for approach for aircraft otherwise you Blue on Blue. CIWS is easily managed, missile systems are a whole other level of complexity.
    4. The ops room would need an extra level of facilities for missile engagement teams as would the Weapon engineering teams who would maintain the systems.
    5. Weapon system mutual interference and Munition Risk assessments would need to be done for fitting SeaCeptor or RAM. Would a Lightning or Merlin Crowsnest Radar cause issues with a Missile System? What would happen and what would be the result of a fire in a missile silo to the ship as a whole?

    Regarding Hyper sonic missiles they are a threat the same as other missiles are. Countermeasures exist for SSN 19 Shipwrecks or SSN 22 Sunburns already. The best countermeasures are to kill the launch vessels at long range (using ASM fitted aircraft) before they shoot or to kill the mid course guidance units if they are in use. Once the missiles are in the air its the dedicated Air Defense Destroyers responsibility to conduct Hard Kill and then Soft Kill even before the carrier starts thinking about Hard and Soft kill. Missile performance is a known quantity by most nations. Something as simple as up revs to max speed and a course change is sometimes enough to get a ship out of the homing head look basket. If the missile cannot see you when it goes active it cannot hit you.

    Beam/laser weapons unfortunately are restricted by physics in the maritime environment. Sea air is heavily laden with moisture that absorbs laser energy. Windows exist in the EM/IR/UV spectrum that can be used at sea level but performance of such weapons at sea is never going to match performance over land or at altitude.

    • Glad to see someone take the time to properly address the perceived lack of defences. Hopefully your eloquent explanation can put a stop to the SAM chat. Plenty of cons and few pros to putting them on CVF, especially when both Sea Viper and Sea Ceptor will be present within any task group already.

    • Thank you again. You’ve explained this issue several times over the months and many are still moaning about the need for dedicated SAM systems without the relevant expertise to comment with any real knowledge.

    • Yes, they are restricted. Carriers themselves are best at operating aircraft. It is the other ships in the “task force”…

    • Let’s hope the only thing that gets warm is human nature, and Britain is not involved in anything so daft. To much talk about a large war in papers and other media. Let’s hope the warm is a thore out of the cold.

    • Was there not a scientist back in the 80s who said that all missiles needed to avoid laser energy was a good mirror finish? The laser used on the mock-up missile had a huge weight attached to it at the top to make it look like it exploded by being hit by a laser. It was said this would happen in space. But, doesn’t laser light defract in different atmospheres and many missiles will not be in space, like the target ship.

  10. I think the question should more be about when has the most expensive/biggest ship in the fleet ever won the war?

    Throughout its history, the RN has won its wars with cheep, boring and plentiful little ships. Napoleon famously said that, ‘Wherever there is a fathom of water to sound, you’re sure to find a British ship…’ In WW1 it was cruisers and TBDs that turned the North Sea into a no-go area for German shipping and in WW2 it was the Destroyers, Corvettes and numerous Escort Carriers (initially old cargo ships and some decking) that kept food coming into the country.

    My concern is that, the moment things get warm, these hugely expensive ships will be tucked up in port. Very safe but very useless.


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