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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.

from http://nationalinterest.org/files/styles/main_image_on_posts/public/main_images/iowa.jpg?itok=A8ifSXzx

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

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-amazing-aircraft-carrier-designs-that-were-never-built

Alternative depiction of this hybird concept below with ‘harrier’ jumpjet aircraft:

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-amazing-aircraft-carrier-designs-that-were-never-built

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.

Soviet Union’s Kiev class cruiser-carrier on operational duty during the Cold War.

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.

Image taken from the film ‘Battleship’ (2012). Universal Pictures. USA

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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Just imagine the Bismark with additional protection and projection? That would have been a formidable prospect for any opposing enemy. Today, that method of warfare would still work, just as with the B52, which refuses to die due to its adaptability, and principal purpose to bomb with a variety of weapons.
    I for one see a modern battleship with massive guns (possibly rail type) and immense size and structured armour protection made from heavy and lightweight composites. Such ships could hold station for months if not years anywhere around the World’s oceans. From those anchorages it could command other vessels, with the sound belief it could withstand considerable damage, yet still, maintain its primary role. I can see such vessels as mobile Neoplionic sea fortresses with almost impregnable defences, and menacing presence.

  2. The short answer is “no”. I think the US Ohios converted to cruise missile subs are a real asset, however. I think we should look at cruise missile ships – modifying freighters to carry hundreds of them. They would give us the ability to position a ship offshore that could affect activities on land to a much greater range or depth than a battleship might with even rocket-assisted projectiles. Constructing one would likely be far less expensive than building a battleship or ssgn. Granted, our astutes can carry thirty or so cruise missiles in addition to a modest load of torpedoes. They can’t carry the hundreds that a modified freighter might, though. I don’t see how a battleship would be more effective. I don’t like the idea of hybrid aircraft-carrier battleships, either. They’ve never worked. The Japanese tried them. The Soviets did too. Both nations abandoned their experiments. The last Kiev was completed as a conventional carrier. I suggest we just let battleships fade into history. We should not build any more. Thanks for writing your article.

    • I’ve thought the same about converted freighters and the US Navy did look into it as well, I believe they called the concept “Arsenal Ships”. I think the main prohibition is the cost of the missiles themselves, the vulnerability of such ships is also an issue although you could treat them like carriers, meshed in with the same supporting fleet a carrier receives they would be similarly vulnerable. Most US warships don’t deploy with full missile loads which probably goes some way to explaining why a ship that is entirely focused on missile capacity didn’t take off.

  3. The object of military action is to neutralise the opposition, hopefully by giving up their will to resist or it in the worst case by destruction.

    The advent of accurate munitions and delivery systems removed the need for huge amounts of munitions in the hope some of them hit the target.

    At the battle of Jutland only around 2.5% of shells fired actually hit their targets, accuracy of modern munitions is in excess of 80%. Some UK warships achieved an accuracy of less than 1%.

    The day of the battleship is over, the jury on whether aircraft carriers can survive against a saturation attack by modern munitions is still out.

  4. I believe the cruise missile sub is a viable concept. For example USS Florida, a Ohio class former SSBN can carry 154 cruise missiles. Parking one of these leviathans “near” a coast line can be considered a massive force multiplier. In the UK we are now looking to replace the Vanguard with the Dreadnought class. Even though the boats are getting on a bit. Like their US cousins it would be a awesome opportunity to convert a number to cruise missile carriers. It will probably never happen due to our non existent defence budget.
    However, there is a downside to the cruise missile sub – cost and deterrence. The off the shelf price for the block IV Tomahawk cruise missile is about £870K. If the option to use 14 of the Trident launchers is used in a similar fashion to the Ohio class i.e. 7 Tomahawks per silo, this would give a war load of 98 missiles, but would also cost £852.6M per boat – not cheap.
    The benefit of a big gun warship, is that the munitions are very cheap by comparison. The WW2 HMS Warspite fired a 15″ shell from an elevation of 30 degrees a distance of 29.5Km, although the same gun fired at 45 degrees could reach 40.4Km. By comparison the Mk45 5″ can fire up to an elevation of 65 degrees with a standard range of 24.3 Km. Since the war the accuracy has exponentially increased, with the Mk45 have a margin of error of some 2% which equates to a CEP of 20m.
    The difference is obviously the weight of the shell and its explosive content. The Tomahawk carries a multi-effect 1000lbs warhead, the old 15″ shell weighed 1938lbs and the 5″ 70lbs. Therefore it can be seen that if one 15″ shell lands on the intended target, the effect it will make compared to a 5″ will to say the least, be quite dramatic!
    Fire Control Systems (FCS) is where the real advances to gunnery have taken place. With wind, earth drift calculated with GPS inputs. The number of the shells required to have the necessary effect on the target is seriously reduced compared to the relative number required during the WW2. It is thought that 3-4 shells from a 5″ will have the same effect on the target as the single 15″ shell using a Time on Target strategy on a non fortified position. If an up to date FCS could be applied to to the 15″ weapon system, imagine what the effect on target would be.
    The latest extended range munitions available for the 5″ gun give it a far greater range than the WW2 15″, some like the Vulcano round has a range in excess of 70Km. However, the explosive punch it carries is not as great as a standard round. If the extended range could be designed for the 15″ shell either by rocket assistance or sabot. What would the equivalent range be? A quick postulation using the 45 degree elevation figure of the 15″ and the Vulcano scale generates a distance of some 117.16Km (guesstimation). Still no where near the range capabilities of the Tomahawk, but still very significant.
    The other disadvantage to the cruise missile carrying sub is deterrence. Having your sub stealthed off a coastline is not a deterrence. To deter you really need a form of visual recognition. Having 45000 tons of USS Iowa parked on the horizon was something to behold. Listening to its broadside fired over the top of you even more so.
    Is this a valid argument to build ships capable of wielding 15″ guns, probably not. However, it does raise an interesting argument over the effective punch the 5″ shell has and the required number to have a significant effect. The advantage of the Mk45 and the OTO 127/64 systems is that it is multi-use. Not only can it be used for Naval Gunfire support (NGS), but in the case of the OTO system when using the DART round can also be used for surface to air engagements.
    There has been a large forum debate over the viability of aircraft carriers when faced by a swarm attack. Wells here’s another arrow to the bow, using extended range munition with a TOT firing cycle. Could a modern CIWS manage this type of threat. Having witnessed a containerised Goalkeeper taking out 3 incoming mortar rounds. This may of been easy for the Goalkeeper especially as the incoming rounds were about 3 seconds apart. But when timed to all arrive at the same time, I’m not so sure.

    Here’s a thought, imagine the effect that HMS Warspite would have been able to achieve in the Normandy landings had she been fitted with an elevation angle of 45 degrees and with today’s FCS and extended range munitions, in one word – devastating!

  5. Will rail gun technology change the calculus of the Battleship?

    Will guided projectiles, perhaps with small integrated solid fuel rockets do the same?

    What about lasers and hypersonic missiles?

    Perhaps in time, the former three will merge and we will see guided, hypersonic shells with hundreds of miles of range, high repetition rates and the ability not only to act in an air-defence role but also provide strategic strikes?

    I think we will find that the argument will fragment and that people will come to see the answer may be different depending on the requirements of the mission and the threats faced.

    So when these technologies start to mature I can imagine the emergence of highly modular ships able to carry a variety of different armament configurations for different mission profiles emerging. Perhaps they will be re-configurable mid mission: by flying in and rapidly fitting different packages. We don’t know but with rapidly changing technology; the ability to radically adapt to new situations and exploit the most appropriate solution in that moment, we will surely see new platforms constructed to exploit this.

  6. The main benefit of a Battleship type vessel is actually its armour, providing the ability to take a great deal of punishment.

    Although the huge guns of WWII era battleships are now considered short range for ASuW, they still had the capability to deliver a shell with a large amount ordnance travelling at a very high velocity.

    The hitting power of such legacy weapons is in the same league as current anti ship missiles.

    The Battleship was designed to sustain several hits from such weapons.

    Current warships are unable to sustain much battle damage, with relatively delicate electronics and thin hulls. A well placed anti ship missile (or two) would incapacitate nearly all vessels, either sinking them outright, or turning them into a liability.

    With developments in armour (Chobham, Dorchester etc.) a modern version of a battleship could be designed to enable it to sustain more battle damage than current warships.
    It would be interesting to see a major ship builder seriously think about how to design a warship that can sustain several hits, yet still be a threat.

    The future holds the potential of close-in-protection provided by high power lasers and electromagnetic guns, but no defence can provide 100% protection.
    That is the whole point of a modern battleship:- been able to soak up the hits that get through and either still be a threat, or extract itself from the environment.

    Sinking is not a really good option for a warship…

    Although the cost of such a vessel would be higher than current vessels, due to the sturdiness of its hull, it would last longer, and could be upgraded several times during its lifetime creating a long term cost benefit.

    Sadly, the protection offered by such a vessel will only be realised as necessary when we lose many of our current crop lightly armoured warships to supersonic anti ship missiles that our current systems can not shoot down in time.

  7. The battleship was a vast sink of capital expenditure, that were only worth the vast expense and effort because they were the apsolute expression power at that time, a nation without a battleship could not compete at sea with a nation that had battleships. The moment it became obvious that they could not compete against carrier borne aircraft or submarines they became pointless white elephants, their whole purpose destroyed. The shore bombardment role was a sad shadow their purpose and could never justify the vast costs.

    Modern battleships are a bit more diverse and make up ships you must have to be a major power, without them you can’t compete:

    Aircraft carrier
    Nuclear submarines (hunter killer and strategic platforms)

    Simply put push comes to shove a nation without these losses against a nation that does. That was always the piont of the battleship.

  8. Times are changing, the battleship was rendered obsolete by air power, in fact for a while surface naval vessels of any description faced that threat. Then along came SAM defences which have now improved to the point that by all accounts attacking a naval vessel with aircraft and missiles is a pointless adventure. Submarines whilst still the silent killers are susceptible to destruction by airpower, modern anti submarine warfare systems make a sub’s job just as dangerous as it was in WW2.

    A massive ship, with both airpower contingent and missile contingent capable of absorbing huge damage and heavily compartmentalised against flooding, backed up with a couple of big guns firing guided smart munitions would be quite a formidable system. The manpower aspect must be much lower today than 50 years ago, automation would render the need for large manpower redundant.

    If this ship could launch stealth aircraft, Fire smart projectiles / missiles and have anti sub / sub hunting capabilities, what exactly could touch it ? Dorchester armoured, advanced radar / Sonar. Its well within our technical capabilities today to create such a ship. Expensive for sure, but would it really be more expensive than a QEII, a pair of Type 45s and a pair of Type 23’s ? Designed properly, this ship would be a stand alone vessel able to project power any where any time.

    History does have a habit of repeating itself !

  9. There seems to be some confusion over the shore bombardment role. This was the province of monitors – think 10,000 tons, 10 knots and 10 feet draught, mounting one battleship gun with a leisurely rate of fire, but much cheaper – and needing few crew. With modern fire control systems they could destroy shore targets very efficiently and cost-effectively, leaving the blue-water fight to more sophisticated (and expensive) warships.

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