USNthe Wells Brothers' Battleship Index

Are Battleships Obsolete?

British (RN)
Japanese (IJN)
German (HSF & KM)
Russian & Soviet

[World War I Era | Inter-War Era | World War II Era | Cold War Era | Conclusion ]


Throughout most of the 20th century, critics have derided battleships as "obsolete". We believe the record is far from clear on this.

The World War I Era

It should be fairly obvious that battleships were the dominant naval weapon of the World War I era. There were few serious challenges at that time. The most significant naval battles of World War I, such as Jutland (31 May 1916-1 June 1916), were fought by battleships and battlecruisers.

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.

Torpedo Boats vs Battleship in WWI

Some of the earliest critics, espcially those in France and Germany, argued that large squadrons of fast torpedo boats could easily defeat the large, lumbering battleships. Torpedo boats did have some successes against battleships in World War I, sinking the Austro-Hungarian dreadnought Szent Istvan and the British pre-dreadnought Goliath. In large fleet actions, however, destroyers and torpedo boats were usually unable to get close enough to the battleships to damage them. There were at lest two reasons for this:
  1. Battleships of this era had an extensive secondary battery of smaller guns, (usually in "casemate" mountings) which were intended to defeat destroyers and torpedo boats. These secondary guns had much higher rates of fire than the main guns, which made them more effective against smaller, faster moving ships.

  2. Battle fleets of this era employed a screen of destroyers and light cruisers against torpedo boat attacks. Destroyers (originally called "torpedo boat destroyers") were as fast as torpedo boats, and were larger and better armed. Torpedo boats were generally no match for the screening destroyers, and eventually the destroyer assumed most of the torpedo boat's functions. Light cruisers of this era had guns very similar to the secondary guns on battleships, which generally outranged the destroyer's guns and torpedoes. Light cruisers had sufficient range to escort the battle fleet, and enough speed to chase destroyers and torpedo boats. These light cruisers were quite effective against destroyers and torpedo boats.
The only battleship sunk in a fleet action by either torpedo boats or destroyers was the obsolescent German pre-dreadnought Pommern. She was sunk by destroyers during the night phase of the Battle of Jutland.

Submarines vs Battleship in WWI

Submarines proved to be a significant threat to battleships during World War I. Submarines torpedoed and sank at least seven British and French pre-dreadnought battleships, while an eighth (the Russian Peresviet) was sunk in a minefield layed by a submarine. The faster and more heavily protected dreadnoughts fared considerably better. The only dreadnought sunk by a submarine was the British Audacious, which foundered after striking a mine that had been laid by a submarine. None were sunk by torpedoes, though several were hit.

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.

The Inter-War Era (1919-1938)

It should not be surprising that battleships did not see any combat in the Inter-War era. It is therefore hard to judge their effectiveness or their vulnerability given the lack of actual combat data. Nevertheless, political authorities considered them enough of a threat to feel that their numbers should be limited by treaty.

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.

Arms Control: The Washington Treaty

As noted above, battleships were the dominant naval weapon of World War I. They were also quite expensive, and only the world's foremost powers could afford them.

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.

Billy Mitchell and the rise of Air Power Theory

After World War I, air power advocates such as Gen. Billy Mitchell, argued that aircraft made battleships obsolete. He made quite a show of sinking obsolete battleships (which were neither maneuvering nor shooting back, and certainly not performing damage control) and convinced a great many people that battleships were vulnerable to level bombers.

Battleships Respond to New Threats

The battleship navies did not stand idly by while new threats evolved, but their actions were limited by treaties and finances.

Anti-aircraft guns

As the threat from the air increased, battleships developed anti-aircraft guns.

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.

Torpedo Bulges

Navies also learned how to limit the damage caused by torpedoes by adding anti-torpedo bulges. These could be quite effective against the torpedoes of the time. Once again, though, it was difficult for navies to refit older battleships due to financial restrictions, and newer battleships couldn't be built until the late 1930s. The new battleships that were built in the late 1930s all had improved anti-torpedo protection designed into their hulls.

The World War II Era (1939-1945)

Aircraft vs. Battleships in WWII

In the minds of many, the British attack on Taranto in 1940, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor settled the question once and for all.

We would make some different arguments:

  1. Pearl Harbor was not a "fair" measure of the battleships' vulnerability. The ships were completely unprepared for battle, with watertight compartments open, and ammunition open for inspection. With the exception of the Nevada, the ships could not move, and most were only able to minimally fire back.

    Whether or not they should have been ready for battle is a different argument.

  2. The battleships that were at Pearl Harbor were largely obsolescent, and certainly did not have the latest in anti-aircraft technology.

  3. Other battleships, which did have the latest anti-aircraft technology, were able to survive aircraft attacks quite well. The most notable example was the USS South Dakota (BB-57), which shot down 26 Japanese aircraft in one day during the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October of 1942. After that incident, carrier commanders always tried to keep battleships near their carriers because the battleships had the best anti-aircraft guns, and lots of them.

  4. No American battleships were lost to aircraft (or anything else, for that matter) after Pearl Harbor.

  5. When land based level bombers were employed against maneuvering warships they were completely ineffective. B-17s based at Midway did no damage to the attacking Japanese fleet, for example. Medium bombers like the B-25 eventually became effective in the anti-ship role by using low altitude "skip bombing" tactics, but even then they did not sink any battleships.

  6. Even the mighty US Carrier forces were usually unable to sink enemy battleships at sea without help from surface forces. The two exceptions were big ones: The Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships of all time. It took a huge number of carrier aircraft to sink them, and both sustained a staggering number of hits before sinking.

  7. While the Tirpitz was sunk by land based level bombers, it took the RAF several tries, using the largest conventional bombs ever built. The Tirpitz was certainly not maneuvering, and was only barely firing back, and even then, one might attribute her loss to poor damage control, although even we must admit this is a stretch. She survived for some time after the final attack, listing and on fire. The fire eventually detonated Turret Caesar, causing her to sink as the bombers were flying away. If she'd had full crew performing damage control, it is imaginable that the fire might have been put out, but one way or the other, her career was over. In fact, the Germans had already decided that she was no longer seaworthy even before the final attack.
Thus, we would argue that World War II aircraft were not as fatal to the battleships as popular history would have us believe.

Torpedo Boats vs Battleship in WWII

To an extent, the torpedo boat and the destroyer merged into the same type in the era around World War I. However, by World War II, a newer, smaller type of fast torpedo craft had evolved. In American terms, these were PT boats. England, Germany, Italy and Japan all had similar craft. Thus, in World War II, the argument about battleships vs. torpedo boats was still very much alive.

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:

  1. The damaging of the battlecruiser Hiei by US destroyers and cruisers on the night of 12 Nov 1942. (She was so severely crippled that land based aircraft were easily able to sink her the next day.)
  2. The sinking of the Fuso by US destroyers and Yamashiro by US destroyers, cruisers, and battleships on 24 Oct 1944.
These instances can be countered by the following:
  1. The Second Battle of Narvik, 13 April 1940, when HMS Warspite and her accompanying destroyers sank U-64 and eight German destroyers in the restricted waters of Vestfjord .
  2. The Battle of Casablanca, 8 Nov 1942: After knocking Jean Bart out of action, USS Massachusetts sank two French destroyers and chased off several others.

Even the destroyer's successes against battleships come with caveats:

  1. Quite a lot of the damage to Hiei was caused by gunfire from the US heavy cruisers, and some might even have resulted from "friendly fire" from the battlecruiser Kirishima. (At one point in the confused battle Hiei engaged a US destroyer inside the minimum range of her guns; unconfirmed reports suggest that nearby Kirishima misinterpreted her shots over the destroyer as hostile fire, and began firing at Hiei.)
  2. The Yamashiro received numerous hits from US battleships before sinking, though most sources (including several surviving crewmen) believed the torpedo hits were decisive.
  3. Though US PT boats took part in the 24 Oct 1944 battle, they made no hits on either battleship. They were invaluable as scouts, however.

Submarines vs. Battleships in World War II

Submarines had less success against battleships than they did in World War I. While submarines and torpedes improved between the wars, anti-submarine sensors, weapons, and tactics improved even more rapidly. As a result, HMS Royal Oak and HMS Barham were the only battleships sunk by submarines during World War II. The Japanese battlecruiser Kongo was also sunk by a submarine near the end of the war.

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.

The Cold War Era (1946-1991)

After World War II, battleships were once again proclaimed obsolete. Most navies with surviving battleships retired them in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With the exception of the Soviet Union, no navy started to build any new battleships or battlecrusers, and the Soviets never completed theirs. The United States Navy, now firmly controlled by carrier admirals, was particularly aggressive about retiring its battleships, reducing its force from 23 battleships and two battlecruisers in 1945, to a single battleship, the USS Missouri in 1948. Britain's Royal Navy retired all of its battleships except for HMS Vanguard, which was used mostly as a flagship, and never saw combat. Italy was forced to scrap its two newer battleships, but was allowed to keep two old ones, Caio Dullio and Andrea Doria. They remained in service until 1956, but never saw combat. France quickly retired the obsolete battleships Lorraine and Paris, but retained the two newer Richelieu-class for some years. Even though the second Richelieu-class, the Jean Bart required both completion and repair at the end of the war, and the French decided to repair and complete her. She was the last battleship to be completed.

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.

Nuclear Weapons vs. Battleships

Nuclear weapons are probably the most historically significant technology to come out of World War II. Nuclear weapons release enough energy to destroy a whole city, as demonstrated in Hiroshima on 6 Aug 1945. Obviously, this had enormous implications for all military forces, and navies were no exception.

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.

Guided Weapons vs. Battleships

Like nuclear weapons, guided weapons were a product of World War II. Unlike nuclear weapons, guided munitions had actually sunk a battleship during the war, the Italian battleship Roma. The weapon in question was not actually a guided missile, but rather a German FX-1400 glider bomb. The FX-1400 itself was not as all-conquering as one might imagine. There were several major issues with the FX-1400 that are not obvious to one who only knows that the FX-1400 sank the Roma:

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:

  1. The rocket-powered SAM. These were very fast missiles with small warheads. These were primarily intended for use against aircraft. The warheads were far too small to do any serious damage to a battleship.

  2. The anti-ship cruise missile. The classic example of this is the Soviet P-15 (NATO designation SS-N-2A "Styx") rocket powered missile. While these typically carried very large warheads, they were slow, and had complicated guidance systems. Mid-course correction was often required. Also, their flight trajectory made them easy to detect, if the defender knew what he was looking for. After some initial success (notably the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eliat in 1967), opponents quickly learned how to jam its guidance system.
Thus, the early guided missiles weren't really that much of a threat.

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.

Nuclear Submarines vs. Battleships

We would argue that if there is a real threat to a battleship, it comes from nuclear submarines. Submarines were already a serious threat, and nuclear power made them much more serious.

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 certainly not obsolete in World War I. In fact, they were that era's dominant naval weapon.

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.

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