|USN||the Wells Brothers' Battleship Index
Are Battleships Obsolete?
|German (HSF & KM)|
|Russian & Soviet|
Britain's Royal Navy used its battleship and battlecruiser fleet to impose a strict naval blockade of Germany. This blockade was a major causes of Germany's economic collapse in 1918. Germany's smaller battleship navy was unable to break this blockade, and was not able to impose similar economic restrictions on Great Britain. The Royal Navy's battleships and battlecruisers regulary "swept" the North Sea making sure that no German ships could get in or out. Only a few German surface ships that were already at sea, such as the famous light cruiser Emden, were able to raid commerce. Even some of those that did manage to get out were hunted down by battlecruisers, as in the Battle of the Falklands, 7 December 1914.
Germany's submarines were able to break out and raid commerce, but even though they sank many merchant ships they could not successfully blockade Great Britain. The British adopted convoy tactics to combat the submarines, and without support from the German surface fleet could not defeat the convoys.
While the obsolescent pre-dreadnoughts that were still active in World War I were vulnerable to submarines, the more modern dreadnoughts proved to be more difficult targets.
While battleships were never intended for anti-submarine warfare, curiously enough, one submarine was actually sunk by a battleship! HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank the German U-29 on 18 March 1915 off Morray Firth.
Technology advanced in this era, as it usually does, and naval weapons technology was no exception. Aircraft carriers were actually developed during World War I, but between the wars they started to become more of a threat to surface ships. Additionally, submarines and torpedos continued to advance.
Battleships of course responded to these technological threats. Antiaircaft guns were developed, and older battleships were fitted with anti-torpedo bulges. Most new battleships built between the wars had anti-torpedo protection included in their hull designs.
After World War I, numerous economic and political forces made arms control seem practical. A combination of understandable war weariness and pacifist idealism made arms control popular. Two of the largest naval powers also had a considerable financial incentive. Great Britain was broke, and could hardly afford another arms race. Additionally, the Royal Navy had a powerful, relatively modern battleship fleet already in existance, and they wanted to lock in their advantage. A treaty which stopped new construction served that end quite nicely. In the United States, the Republican Harding administration wanted to save money for promised tax cuts. (In those days, the Republican party was strongly anti-defense.) Italy and France had post war problems of their own, and were certainly not interested in a renewed arms race.
Japan, on the other hand, had emerged from World War I nearly unscathed, and had an ambitious construction program to build eight new battleships and eight new battlecruisers.
Thus, at the suggestion of the United States, the major powers convened the Washington Conference on naval arms limitation in November of 1921. The United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan were parties to the treaty. (Germany was already constrained by the much more restrictive Treaty of Versailles) The resulting Washington Treaty, signed on 6 February 1922, was the first arms control treaty in history.
The treaty caused the major powers to scrap almost all of their pre-dreadnoughts and early dreadnoughts. The treaty also imposed a displacement limit of 35,000 tons on all future battleships. Additionally, new battleship and battlecruiser construction was halted for 10 years, with only a few exceptions.
The treaty placed limits on the total size of the various fleets. The approximate ratio was 5 to 5 to 3 to 1.75 to 1.75 for Great Britain, the United States, Japan, Italy and France respectively.
Japan was not at all pleased about this ratio, as they were a rising power, and didn't have the financial problems that the other nations did. Their ambitious "8-8" construction program might have made the Imperial Japanese Navy one of the world's most powerful. Instead, they were seemingly relegated to second-rate status.
As is often the case, the treaty had unintended consequences.
The United States Navy developed particularly effective heavy anti-aircaft guns, however, like most navies, they were not able to put the latest models on most of their older battleships. Because of the Washington treaty, they were not allowed to build new battleships until the late 1930s. When new US battleships were finally built, they carried 16 to 20 of the superb 5in/38 "dual purpose" (anti-aircraft and anti-ship) guns. These guns were capable of firing shells equipped with the new, top-secret "VT" proximity fuse, which greatly improved their effectiveness against aircraft.
Britain's Royal Navy was in a similar predicament. They too were able to develop effective anti-aircraft guns, but they also lacked the money to refit very many older battleships, and they too were prevented from building new battleships until the late 1930s.
We would make some different arguments:
Whether or not they should have been ready for battle is a different argument.
The actual record in World War II is very much mixed for this type of combat.
Torpedo boat/destroyer advocates can point to the following:
Even the destroyer's successes against battleships come with caveats:
Perhaps as notable as these submarine successes were the failures. For example, the Japanese submarine I-19 torpedoed the American battleship USS North Carolina (BB-55) in September 1942, yet she not only remained afloat, but was able to continue operations. The same attack sank the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7). There were numerous other instances where submarines fired torpedoes against battleships, and missed completely. History books seldom record such unremarkable failures, but we've found numerous instances.
Much to the surprise of their critics, battleships continued to be useful in the Cold War era, although in a less traditional role. Battleships could no longer claim their traditional role in controlling the seas, however they have long been recognized for their value in providing heavy gunfire support for amphibious assault operations. They remain unsurpassed in that role, and this was repeatedly demonstrated in the Cold War era.
The US Navy reactivated its Iowa-class battleshops on several occasions. The success of the USS Missouri (BB-63) in the Korean War (1950-1953) lead to the subsequent reactivation of all of her sisters, which were similarly successful in that war. The USS New Jersey (BB-62) was again briefly reactivated during the VietNam war, and curiously, may have been a victim of her own success. All four Iowa class were again reactivated in the 1980s. While the American intervention in Lebanon ultimately failed, the USS New Jersey's (BB-62) bombardment of Syrian positions was quite effective, contrary to media reports at the time. The USS Missouri (BB-63) and especially the USS Wisconsin (BB-64) once again provided effective shore bombardment in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.
Curiously enough, the one type of aircraft that proved to be a real threat to battleships, the torpedo bomber, quickly disappeared after World War II. They were too slow and vulnerable to survive in the post-war world.
There were two major new threats to battleships in the Cold War era: guided missiles and nuclear weapons.
When the Cold War began, only the United States had this technology; however by 1947, the Soviet Union had obtained it as well.
The United States performed nuclear weapons tests on naval ships at Bikini Atoll in July, 1946. Among the targets were five older battleships: Arkansas, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Nagato. The results were interesting. All five survived the first test of an air dropped bomb on 1 July 1946, despite the fact that the Nevada was supposed to be the center of the target. The second test, an underwater bomb detonated on 25 July 1946, sank the Arkansas, and sufficiently damaged the Nagato that she eventually sank. The New York, Nevada, and Pennsylvania survived remarkably intact. Even the floatplane on the New York's deck was still intact after the two tests. The Pennsylvania's survival is even more impressive, since she still had unrepaired war damage to her stern.
While this does not account for the effects of radiation on the crew, it does demonstrate that the blast effects alone of a small nuclear weapon will not necessarily sink a battleship. In fact, one might argue that the battleships survived the tests better than any other type of ship.
This is precisely the conlusion that the military and political leadership of the day did not draw. If anything, the tests reinforced their opinion that battleships were obsolete, since "nothing" could stand up to nuclear weapons. Curiously, nobody said the same of aircraft carriers, cruisers, or destroyers.
Nuclear threats persisted throughout the Cold War (1946-1991) but during the whole Cold War, not a single nuclear weapon was used in combat.
At the time, though, and for years to come it was assumed that guided missiles were the ultimate non-nuclear weapon, and that nothing could protect against them. Further, since guided missiles could be mounted on small ships or aircraft, it was assumed that there was no need for larger ships and their heavy weapons, since a guided missile could hit just as hard. (In an earlier era the same was said about small ships carrying large torpedoes.)
As usual though, reality was more complicated.
In the early days of guided missiles, there were fundamentally two types:
As time went on, missiles became more sophisticated. The major development was the "surface skimming" cruise missile. The best known example is the French MM-38 "Exocet". These missiles have the advantage of a lower flight profile than many earlier missiles, enabling them to evade the defenders' radar. The problem is that they still only carry a relatively small high explosive (i.e. non-armor piercing) warhead, and the guidance system can still be decoyed or jammed. An Exocet would not be much of a threat to a battleship.
In recent years, new generations of anti-ship missiles have evolved. One of the best modern missiles is the Russian P-270 Moskit (manufactuer's designation 3M80, NATO designation SS-N-22 "Sunburn") This is a fairly powerful, long-ranged missile like its Soviet predecessors; however it is much faster, and has a surface skimming flight profile. Some have speculated that these might be powerful enough to seriously damage a battleship. It certainly seems possible, since the supersonic P-270 flies about as fast as a shell from a battleship gun and weighs considerably more. On the other hand, it doesn't appear to be designed to penetrate battleship armor - no great surprise, since there were no active battleships when P-270 was designed. Also, like any missile its guidance system can be jammed or decoyed. In the absence of hard data it's difficult to say with certainty how effective a missile like P-270 would be against a battleship.
In 1954, the United States launched the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). This was an extremely significant development. Nuclear power vastly increased the speed and endurance of the submarine.
The Soviet Union quickly followed suit with their November class, and the nuclear submarine race was on.
Nuclear submarines made rapid technological advances. The advanced, teardrop-shaped hull design of the USS Albacore (SS-569) was incorporated into the nuclear powered USS Skipjack (SSN-585) to make a sub that was extremely fast as well. The USS Thresher (SSN-593) quickly followed with a dramatically quieter propulsion system that made her much more difficult to detect. Subsequent American and Western European designs became progressively quieter, making them even harder to detect. Soviet nuclear submarines designed before about 1980 were quite noisy and relatively easy to detect; more recent Soviet and Russian subs are nearly as quiet as Western subs.
Submarine torpedoes also made rapid technological advances follwing World War II. Range and speed both increased dramatically, eventually surpassing even Japan's legendary Type 93 "Long Lance" surface launched torpedo of World War II. Torpedo guidance systems substantially improved as well. It also became technically feasible to make deep running torpedoes which would explode beneath the keel of a ship, breaking its back. (Attempts to do this during World War II were largely unsuccessful.) Many believe that no amount of armor or other anti-torpedo protection can defeat these modern toropedoes. (Though we must point out that the effectiveness of these torpedoes against very large, heavily armored warships like battleships has never actually been demonstrated.)
Thus, nuclear submarines are probably the single most formidable anti-ship platform in the world today.
So, how could the aging battleships survive in a world dominated by nuclear submarines?
The answer is: By playing an entirely different game.
Even we agree that battleships are no longer very significant in the sea control/anti-ship role; the addition of long range missiles to US battleships in the 1980s once again made them potentially formidable anti-ship platforms, but these same missiles can also be carried by much smaller warships. During the Cold War era battleships were primarily used for shore bombardment.
We would argue that the proven ability of battleships to carry out shore bombardment missions during the Cold War era conclusively proves that they remain effective despite advanced submarine technology. (We would also point out that no other ship or submarine could carry out these shore bombardment missions nearly as well, but that's another argument.)
How did the battleship remain effective?
When battleships were used in combat during the Cold War, such as in Korea (1950-1953) Vietnam (1968-1969) Lebanon (1983-1984) or the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), nuclear submarines were not much of a factor.
In all of the above cases, the opposing powers did not have nuclear submarines. Most nations don't. Many nations do have diesel-electric subs, and these were strangely absent in all of the above cases. (In fairness Vietnam, Lebanon, and Iraq didn't posses any subs, though several of their political allies did. On the other hand the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union were both directly involved in the Korean war, and both had submarines at the time.) If subs are so effective against battleships, why didn't opposing nations use them? We suspect that this is mostly a tribute to the anti-submarine ships of the nations with battleships (mostly, the US Navy). Battleships do not operate alone; they are always accompanied by anti-submarine escort ships. In order to attack the battleship, the submarine must first penetrate the escort screen. This isn't easy; since the escorts know where the submarine must go to attack, the submarine loses part of its advantage of stealth. Shore bombardment missions are by their very nature conducted in shallow, restricted waters near shore, which further limits the submarine's options. The reality is that it's not quite so easy for a minor navy with submarines attack a major navy's surface ships. The fact that the minor navies all decided not to try tends to confirm this.
Battleships were not obsolete in World War II. They repeatedly proved resistant, although not invulnerable, to air and torpedo attacks. While no longer the dominant naval weapon, they could and did carry out many useful missions that other types of ships could not.
The role of the battleship changed in the Cold War era, but the surviving battleships repeatedly demonstrated their unique capabilities in the area of heavy gunfire support. There were no attacks on remaining battleships which significantly damaged any of them.
While the surviving battleships are now very old, the need for a heavy
gunfire support ship remains. Such a ship would not necessarily be any
more vulnerable to submarine, guided missile, or nuclear attack than any
other type of amphibious warfare ship, and indeed might be significantly
less vulnerable. No other type of ship has replaced the battleships'
fire support capability. Whether a future ship is called a battleship or
something else, an armored ship with large guns is still needd to
provide this gunfire support.
Copyright © 2001 Lawrence H. Wells and David R. Wells. All rights reserved.