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.