This article explores the role of the Battleship and whether or not the vessel still has a place at sea.
Recently we published an article titled ‘The End of the Battleship: Why Britain needs Aircraft Carriers’ by Sam Flint which argues that the United Kingdom needs to invest in the capabilities of Aircraft carriers and these ships have replaced battleships as capital ships.
These are the ships in which to measure a nation’s strength. I would agree with this argument in part, but I think there is are added benefits to having a battleship or ‘battleship-like’ ships which is has the same capabilities and shore bombardment potential without the tonnage displacement, the crew needed or the big calibre guns such as the Zumwalt class.
I know this is a controversial point to be made, but I do argue that battleships do bring something to the battlefield, that other ships don’t. However, I later qualify my points in terms of projection of power rather than the ship itself is what is needed.
The National Interest (2017) published a piece called ‘Battlecarrier: The US Navy’s Dream of Merging a Battleship and an Aircraft Carrier’. This is an interesting read and would encourage others to look at this article to form their own opinions.
The battlecarrier concept from this article is summarised below:
“The firepower of the battleships—and their destructive range—would have increased substantially. Trading one turret for 20 Harrier jets was a pretty good deal. Add the Tomahawks and their ability to strike with precision at a thousand miles and the improvements looked even better. The resulting warship would have equaled the firepower of a Nimitz-class supercarrier.
But as before, the Iowas’ inherent inefficiencies worked against them. With a crew of nearly 2,000 each, the ships’ high personnel costs made them prohibitively expensive to run in an all-volunteer navy. Harrier jets could already be carried by the Tarawa-class landing ships, and missile silos were proliferating across the fleet.”
Concept model of the ‘battlecarrier’ below
Alternative depiction of this hybird concept below with ‘harrier’ jumpjet aircraft:
In some ways this mirrors what the Soviet Union attempted to do back in the 1970s when they were building the ‘hybrid cruiser-carrier concept’.
Below is a Soviet ‘Kiev-class’ cruiser-carrier hybrid.
But it does have its limitations. However I think it interesting the ‘Battlecarrier’ concept is interesting, and whether it still has the place in the 21st century.
Historically it is worth noting that during the 1990 – 1991 First Gulf War Iowa class battleships took part in Operation Desert Storm.
The USS Missouri was well known for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles which was shown on international news. There is a whole debate called ‘United States Naval Gunfire Support debate’ which you can even read on Wikipedia, but basically exponents of this debate argue that the US Navy needs to be able to deliver shore bombardment during a time of war.
However, there are those who would argue that nowadays, other ships can do this, through surgical strikes, and the battleship is no longer needed when you have technologically sophisticated Arleigh-Burke destroyers as well as aircraft such as B-52s, and surgical strikes from stealth fighters.
After the days of the Cold War, cost cutting, and accountancy meant that these old ships were retired from service with full military honours, with their nuclear warheads and tomahawk cruise missiles removed. The Soviet Union collapsed and with it its naval threat. The maritime landscape had changed. This meant the battleships became redundant in an age of peace, without a foreseeable enemy to need these ships for.
Even mass media and Hollywood have an idealistic view of the Iowa class in the aptly named Hollywood film called ‘Battleship’ (2012) loosely based on the board-game. In one scene, Lt. Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a weapons officer aboard a US destroyer when it got hit, and needs to take the helm of the USS Missouri an Iowa – class ship (which has since been decommissioned and is now a museum) in order to take the fight direct to the Alien ship.
The display of its analog displays, its massive guns, and the way it moves was ‘naval porn’ for those who are into their ships. The message in ‘Battleship’ was, that in the end, all it takes was a few big guns to launch a the enemy – in this case an Alien ship. This is all Hollywood fiction, and to a point you have to take this with a pinch of salt. I agree, but there is a symbolism in our culture, and reverence for the Battleship.
I would personally say, that battleships are essential in warfare. The battleship can carry a multitude of different munitions including ballistic missiles, nuclear capable missiles, and also has anti-submarine and anti-aircraft capabilities.
It can be a massive missile boat, plus during an amphibious landing its big guns could take out targets if need be. The battleship and offshore bombardment could be seen as necessary and essential to destroy deep fortifications, and to destroy bunkers. But could this be done by another class of vessel already designed?
The answer is yes.
The firepower of battleships will be seen in the Zumwalt-class destroyers, which would provide fire naval support for Marines. You could argue that these are the 21st century equivalent to the Iowa class battleship, but has the cost-benefit advantages of being smaller manned, not as big, stealth like capabilities, and precision firepower.
In addition, I can see ships being designed to launch effective deadly missiles at bunker and command-control complexes, with the mission profile of shore bombardment. While the B52 is still in service some would argue why can’t the Iowa class? The truth of the matter is that the nature of warfare itself has changed. I predict that we will witness the emergence of a new class of destroyer such as the Zumwalt class style of ‘‘missile battery’ ships with a specific focus on land attack.
Below is a Zumwalt-class destroyer concept art.
However, one cannot discount the continuous debate that has followed since the last Iowa class retirement. The argument being the need to provide shore bombardment support for the Marine Corps. Historically, this was also why these decommissioned Battleships were not broken up, or made into museums following their retirement from service. Both the USS Iowa and the USS Wisconsin, were stricken from the Naval Register in the mid 2000s. In theory, these ships could have participated in the Second Gulf War: Operation Iraqi Freedom if deemed necessary, but they didn’t.
While the Foxtrot Article (2015) article argues that at least the USS Iowa, and USS Wisconsin could be project power once again in a Trump naval build up, like they did during the Reagan era of the 1980s. However, I do wonder if Trump may, and this is one big possible may, reactivate these ships for symbolic reasons. Trump’s rhetoric of ‘Make America Great Again’ maybe will give an added political impetus to restore these battleships for its added symbolism and visions it conjures up to potential adversaries, but for military reasons I do not believe this is necessarily the right path to follow.
I doubt parking an Iowa class battleship in the South China Sea would deter the People’s Republic of China, or deter North Korea from developing more missiles. Times have changed.
I would therefore conclude, however we personally feel about the battleship, whether it’s nostalgia, or reverence for the actions they have provided in the past, they are essentially analog ships which could not logistically operate in a digital era. The manpower needed, as well as the refits, and new computers and operating systems, and power stations would be immense.
I would go so far as to say that there is neither the political will, or the military impetus from naval strategists and planners from many nations to reactive the ‘Battleship’ as a viable concept in the 21st century. That is why we do not see a single battleship in operation today. The focus is on stealth, smaller crew, precision missions, and the mission profile to avoid detection. All of these variables, would be incompatible with a battleship.
However, there is one lasting thought to leave on. There have not been any large naval engagements in a time of war since Falklands War, and any other naval engagements has been ship to shore. Future warfare may provide lessons – particularly in amphibious warfare of what is needed.
The Zumwalt class is an interesting testbed for the future of offshore naval bombardment, and I believe we will see this play out in a future conflict.