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.

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Frank62

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… Read more »

Ian

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.

Grubbie

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.

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.

significant

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… Read more »

John West

$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.

John West

And that photo at the top is still awesome.

john

Yes we have the best photo by far.!!

Darren

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… Read more »

Darren

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.

Lewis

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.

Darren

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.

Darren

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.

Gunbuster

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… Read more »

Gunbuster. Fascinating comments. Thank you.

David Stephen

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.

Daniele Mandelli

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.

Darren

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

Darren

Also. Not just Battleship being vulnerable the air attack, but every type of ship including Aircraft carriers. Battleships, in theory, could take more punishment but dish out a more defensive fire.

Darren

And also again. What goes up, must come down.

Darren

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.

Darren

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.

Alex Masters

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… Read more »

Ryan

Do it now