The Challenges of Building a Modern Battleship

In a previous article, I made it clear that the ultimate goal of our website is to construct a Montana class battleship as the greatest example of experimental historical reconstruction. It will be an extremely difficult process, taking a lot of time and money to complete. It might seem easy considering that nations once regularly cranked out battleships, the realty is the capability has largely disappeared. In this article, I will examine some of the challenges of building a modern battleship today and see if it is feasible.

This is a large topic, so I will break this topic in a series of articles.

  • Article 1 – Overview
  • Article 2 – Armor
  • Article 3 – Power Plant
  • Article 4 – Guns
  • Article 5 – Costs
  • Article 6 – Funding

Dealing with advances in Technology

the challenges of building a modern battleship

Perhaps the most difficult part in the entire process is adapting old blueprints to modern technology. Materials have changed to the point that adapting them into the design alters the characteristics of the ship. The most modern version of specially treated steel is not just stronger than that of the 1940s, but it lighter as well. Swapping modern STS steel into the design would likely lighten the ship considerably. Stronger materials also affect other parts as well. For instance, gun barrels and propeller shafts can be made thinner. On the subject of propellers, new designs are both lighter and more efficient. In addition, power plants are smaller and more compact. Even modern boilers and turbines of the same horsepower ratings would take up less space.

The question of how to incorporate these new materials into an older design is the most challenging aspect. Even with the old blueprints, naval architects will likely have to make minor changes to the design to keep it as close to original as possible. I am currently talking to a few friends in the naval architecture field to examine this problem in more depth.

Finding a Shipyard

The second most difficult part of the entire process is finding a suitable location to produce a ship that is almost 1000′ in length and displaces well over 65,000 tons. There are very few shipyards capable of such a project and even fewer that are not involved strictly with military projects. As far as Naval ships go, most are well under 20,000 tons. Indeed, the only ships to exceed the size of battleships are modern super carriers. Luckily, by this point I have identified several potential candidates. Like any shipbuilding project, we would have to submit the blueprints to various shipyards and then review the bids for the project. Each shipyard will submit their fee for production as well as a timeframe.

In keeping the ship as true to the blueprints as possible, the ship will have to be manufactured in a certain way. The sheer size of the ship means that it will have to be assembled in a dry-dock of some sort. Rather than laying a keel and building up as was common in older battleship construction, it might be possible to assemble the ship in a manner similar to that of aircraft carriers. This would involve manufacturing the ship in a series of prefabricated sections and then assembling them together on the slipway or dry-dock. Regardless of the choice of construction the biggest factor here is the need for a suitable dry-dock. I have thus far identified the following candidates as potential builders.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, a spin off of Northrop Grumman, is likely the best candidate. HII controls Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia as well as Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi. While known of their involvement in building naval warships, Newport News has built private ships throughout its history. However, as Newport News builds its products to military spec, they have a reputation for overbuilt, costly products made from top quality materials. This has made its private ship division suffer as cargo ships should not have to be made according to naval specifications. However, for our use, this might be beneficial. Newport News has a dry-dock of sufficient size. The problem is that they are currently producing the latest batch of aircraft carriers for the US Navy. Any construction would be on a rigorous schedule that had to take second stage to carrier construction.

While I would prefer construction to take place inside of the United States, I have examined several companies outside of the US that would be capable of this construction.

  • Blohm + Voss in Germany. (Somewhat Ironic to have the ship constructed in the same drydock that once held the Bismarck).
  • Daewoo Shipyard in South Korea.
  • Samsung Heavy Industries in South Korea.
  • Several others that I am still looking at.

The final decision will be based simply on availability. Once the specifications are put out, any yard that is available and has the capability will likely be the winner. Of course, cost plays a major roll. Certain yards might offer benefits to keep workers employed. In return for sponsorship or testing purposes, the Navy might alleviate some cost. It all comes down to wheeling and dealing at the time plus the greasing of various palms.

Armor

Boilers used in the North Carolia class battleships. This photo gives an example of the size and complexity of these power plants.

I had figured that manufacturing Class A or B armor plate was impossible as warships have not been armored since the end of the Second World War. Amazingly, acquiring the armor plate for this project is still relatively easy. Most metal plants that I reached out too confirmed that manufacturing steel plates of sufficient thickness is possible. Machinery is adjusted to meet the demands of whatever order the plant is currently fulfilling. Even the process of face-hardening the steel plates appears to be easily performed.

Despite the ease of manufacturing armor, the process of mounting it on the ship is a different matter entirely. Battleships were traditionally built from the keel up. A heavy armored citadel was built around the ship, encasing all of the vital components inside. This ensured the ship was build from the inside out. However, most ships today are built in modular fashion. I have yet to determine how the mounting of armor will influence the construction of the ship. I will be looking into this issue farther and consulting with contacts in the ship building industry.

Power Plant

Like the armor issue, acquiring a large power plant is still relatively easy, but comes with some unique challenges.

While steam turbine propulsion was generally replaced in the 1970s by lighter gas turbines, manufacturers of steam turbines  and boilers still exist. Two of the biggest names, Babcock & Wilcox and General Electric produced boilers and steam turbines for Navy battleships respectively. Both of these companies are in operation today and are capable of producing the needed components. There are also several additional companies outside of them that are also capable of producing the needed components.

The main issue is once again adapting current technology to an older design. Current technology has progressed to the point that generating the historical 172,000shp would require a much smaller space.  This would leave a lot of empty space inside the ship and make it much lighter than it would have normally been. To utilize boilers of sufficient size would result in higher shp ratings. Based on some quick calculations, I found that a modern steam turbine power plant of the same size would produce around 260,000 shp and a top speed of 32 knots. Of course, it is also possible to simply utilize the larger power plants while restricting them to achieve the correct speed and improve reliability. Of the choices, I would prefer the larger, more powerful engines to ensure the more historical size and tonnage.

As an added fun fact, I found that you can fit eight of the current LM2500+ gas turbine engines found in most modern warships inside the Montana class battleship. At 40,200shp each, the power plants would be good for over 320,000 shaft horsepower, vastly higher than any current naval ship and likely making it one of the fastest. You would still have some room left over as well.

the challenges of building a modern battleship

The Guns

In this area, I was once again surprised. While no company exists that specializes in producing large caliber naval weaponry, several companies exist that still have the capability. The advance of metallurgical technology is a cause for concern. Materials are both stronger and lighter. It is also entirely possible to manufacture a large naval gun in monoblock form. Like anything else, the final product will be a result of cost and production method. I reached out to several gun manufacturers for additional information. Once I have attained enough information, I will share it in a later article completely focuses on producing gun barrels.

Final Thoughts and Links

This is just a brief overview of what little information I have thus far. Based on what I currently know, the project is feasible. How challenging the project will be will be determined based on further information. As I compile more information I will organize it into more in-depth articles. I cannot promise a time frame on this articles. They will become available when the correct information has been collected.

Of course, feel free to leave a comment below or in the forum. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to keep up with all the latest information as I continue to dig it up.

 

Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.

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