Is there room for twenty-first century battleships?

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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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Is there room for battleships now? It’s a question that has never really gone away and, as world tensions rise into the twenty-first century, is likely to be asked again.

USS Missouri after her 1980s modernisation. Public domain.

The issue that killed battleships in the 1940s was practicality: aircraft had better range than heavy guns – and battleships were expensive to build and run. But they never lost their prestige, or the practical value of having a large and well-protected warship in any fleet. France and Britain even completed battleships under construction during the Second World War, and the Royal Navy  briefly hoped for new-build editions of the Lion class, with radars and missiles for the 1950s.

All was quashed by cost and the practical reality of missile-age warfare in which battleship heavy guns and flak batteries could be functionally replaced by missile systems light enough to be fitted to cruisers and destroyers. They were also cheaper. Displacement did not permit armour: Cold War naval design from the 1950s was one of ‘eggshells armed with hammers’. Older ships were kept going. Some – such as the US Navy’s late-generation heavy cruisers – were given missile conversions. But although supply ships, carriers and amphibious vessels often hit the 20,000-ton-plus mark, most new-build combat vessels were less than 10,000 tons. Talk of larger surface combatants was bandied about in US naval planning, but never implemented – in part for cost reasons.

USS Missouri firing her 16-inch guns in 1944. US National Archives 80-G-K-4546, public domain.

Into that mix flowed the 24,300 ton Soviet Project 1144 ‘Orlan’, known to the west as the Kirov class. These were as big as Second World War battlecruisers and fitted with a combined nuclear/conventional propulsion plant that gave unlimited cruising range and good sprint speeds. They bristled with missiles, including multi-layered defensive systems, making them difficult to tackle even though they were largely unarmoured.

The Kirovs were among the factors that spurred the Reagan administration’s decision to revive the US Navy’s four Iowa class battleships in 1981-83. Apparently there was a good deal of concern in Soviet circles when New Jersey emerged with modern radars, Tomahawk missile launchers and close-in weapons systems to back her 16-inch guns. Doubtless a Kirov‘s P-700 Granit anti-shipping missiles could have made a mess of any unarmoured area, but if it had come to a slug-out match between an Iowa and a Kirov, my money’s still on Iowa’s 16-inch projectiles.

Cost and age put paid to the Iowas in the end. And just two of the former Soviet ‘battlecruisers’ remain, one of which is under long-term reconstruction. But the idea hasn’t gone away, and the Russians are about to begin building a dozen nuclear-powered ‘destroyers’ of some 17,500 tons displacement with the latest weapons, including hypersonic cruise missiles. In effect, this is the twenty-first century equivalent of a battleship – coincidentally, the displacement is close to the original Dreadnought of 1906. But the type lacks heavy armour and doesn’t include a significant gun armament.

So is there room for a new battleship of scale closer to the old classics of the Second World War? Is it even appropriate? The Mk VII 16″/50 guns fitted to the Iowas were among the most powerful heavy guns ever developed, but modern technology gives a different option for the armament. An electromagnetic ‘rail gun’ now under development in the US has a 100 mile range and its 25-pound projectiles travel at Mach = 6, giving them immense hitting power. Nor can the slugs be shot down. The main issue is that the system draws 25 megawatts, more than most current ships can generate or spare.

Besides having the space for generators to drive such weaponry, a ship of 50,000-tons+ could carry a battery of anti-aircraft and land-attack missiles, helicopters for anti-submarine work and electronics to suit. The issue of armour is a tricky one, but it’s reasonable to suppose that better protection will be needed than the partial kevlar wrapping that passes for protection in current warships.

HMS Rodney’s guns at full elevation. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Is any of this likely? I think it’s naïve to suppose that the age of great fleets, armies and air forces is over. We had a lull after the Cold War in which it appeared the age of great national conflicts might be history. Actually there is enough opposition building around the major nations to suggest we’re already heading back into another period of tensions. And if they’re not tempered, those issues can only get worse. Hot-spots include the Spratly Islands and the two Koreas, along with other points across the Middle East and in Asia.

Human nature doesn’t change, and for me the lesson of history is that a new age of ‘world-spanning’ wars between major nations will be a possibility by the middle of the twenty-first century. And that, curiously, is the practical timespan it would probably take to develop a twenty-first century battleship.

For my take on New Zealand’s world-spanning naval history, check out my book Blue Water Kiwis, available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

3 Comments

  1. Chris Knupp on 05/28/2017 at 12:52 PM

    You mention that armor is the tricky subject.

    Any opinions on dynamic armor? While optimized to defeat shaped charge warheads, testing in England has shown it to be effective in defeating kinetic penetrators as well.

    • Matthew Wright on 05/28/2017 at 1:12 PM

      I believe there’s been work done on naval applications – also, there’s the Mk 48 Mod 0 VLS launcher, which I gather can be fitted outboard of the main ship systems, with solid backing plates, and thus act as a kind of reactive armour. That also reduces damage to the ship if the launcher’s hit and ‘blows’. As always the issue is balancing the weight of any armouring system (and reactive armour ain’t light) against the other requirements of any given ship design. Even the largest ship will always be a compromise in the end. One of the issues is that the technology for developing face-hardened steel – ‘ordinary’ armour – reached its physical and chemical limits about a century ago, which suggests that other technologies will be needed. So it wouldn’t surprise me if reactive armour became part of any ‘armour mix’.

      • Chris Knupp on 05/28/2017 at 1:16 PM

        Fair enough. The US has been investing money in researching armor systems for warships recently.

        I expect that warship armor will evolve in a manner similar to Main battle tanks. Layers of composite armor back up with active protection systems.

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