It’s a funny quirk of American democracy that Congress often inserts itself into decisions it has no business making. One great example of this is that, due to an act of Congress, the Navy has to make sure that the battleships USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin, 74 and 73 years old respectively, have to be kept in a condition to be returned to service.
Why? Well apart from allowing for truly horrific movies to be made, the idea is that their big guns could be valuable for providing fire support to troops attacking enemies on shore, like on D-Day in Normandy.
There have been a lot of words and analysis expended on this subject, and for most people who aren’t in Congress it is settled: the navy made those ships into museums and it has no plans to bring them back.
However, there is one point that I haven’t seen made in the popular literature on the subject. Most of the discussions revolve around the efficacy of the big guns, or how well the battleships’ armor would protect them against cruise missiles and how much they’d cost to run (which is the real reason we don’t use them anymore).
But let’s leave the money talk, which is no fun, and look at one of the most critical arguments against using battleships in a real shooting war in the 21st Century: the fact that these ships are uniquely vulnerable to being sunk by submarines.
The Iowa-class battleships have a long and storied history spanning over 50 years of on-and-off active duty. The deck of the Missouri was where Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII was signed, and the ships have served in every major conflict since, from Korea to Vietnam to the first Gulf War.
They’re also huge, magnificent ships. The Iowas, weighing in at about 58,000 tons full load, are a full four times the size of the new 15,000-ton Zumwalt-class destroyers, the next largest USN surface warships. Only the nuclear-powered carriers are bigger.
So with all this it’s easy to forget that they were actually a compromise design to start with, a design that the US Navy of the time weren’t completely satisfied with but accepted for the sake of production schedule.
Back in the 1930’s, the Washington and London Naval Treaties limited the displacement of battleships to 35,000 tons. The preceding North Carolina and South Dakota class battleships were both built to this limit.
When Japan failed to ratify the follow-on London Treaty of 1936, the US and Great Britain triggered a so-called Escalator Clause that increased the limit on battleship size to 45,000 tons. This was the constraint under which the original designs for the Iowa-class ship were formulated.
Even though the start of the war removed the legal limits and many modifications were made, the fundamental design started as essentially a faster, bigger version of the South Dakota-class. There simply wasn’t enough time to make more fundamental changes and still have the ships ready for the war. Instead, the truly unfettered, be-all-end-all design was to be the Montana-class, weighing in at a staggering 70,000 tons. These ships wound up being cancelled because they couldn’t be finished in time for the war, and by the time the war ended the aircraft carrier had taken over.
These limitations resulted in a fundamental change in philosophy in US battleship construction. Any warship design is a compromise between three main factors: firepower, protection, and mobility. Want more firepower in the form of bigger, heavier guns? Then either give up speed or armor, or build a bigger, more expensive ship. Up until the Iowa-class ships the USN had always prioritized firepower and protection, in the form of thicker armor, over speed.
But there was a new requirement for the great War in the Pacific: the need to keep up with aircraft carriers. So the Navy, going against fifty years of shipbuilding philosophy, compromised on protection instead — in order to keep under the 45,000 ton limit, the Iowas would sacrifice armor and torpedo protection to get the speed needed to keep up with the fast carrier task forces.
Yet the four largest battleships the U.S. Navy produced were not much more than 33-knot versions of the 27-knot, 35,000 tonners that had preceded them. The Iowas showed no advance at all in protection over the South Dakotas… Ten thousand tons was a very great deal to pay for 6 knots
This compromise showed itself in various ways: the most obvious of which was the main armor belt. The main belt, designed to keep heavy shells from enemy battleships from penetrating the ship’s sides, was a 12 inches thick. This seems like a lot, until you realize that the British King George V class battleships, which were a full 10,000 tons lighter, had a 15 inch belt.
Another compromise, more relevant to the discussion at hand, is that the Iowas’ were built with less than ideal protection against torpedo attack. Battleships of the day were built with complex torpedo protection schemes consisting of multiple layers of armor, liquids, and air. These were designed to absorb and dissipate the force of a torpedo explosion so that they wouldn’t make huge holes in the ship.
The Iowas were a compromise design based on yet another compromise design, the South Dakotas. And during testing it was discovered that the torpedo protection scheme used in the Iowas and South Dakotas was actually inferior to that of the preceding North Carolina-class ships. And indeed the “ultimate design” Montana-class ships had a torpedo protection scheme that reverted to the North Carolina design.
What does this mean? The Iowa-class aren’t just vulnerable to torpedo attack by today’s standards, their underwater protection was considered second-rate even by 1940’s standards!
Torpedoes were the bane of the battleship. Take a look at other battleships of similar vintage. Discounting old ships left over from WWI, seven were sunk during the war: the German Bismarck, Tirpitz, and Scharnhorst, the Italian Roma, the British Prince of Wales, and the Japanese giants Yamato and Musashi.
Of these ships, only Scharnhorst, the smallest by far, was sunk by gunfire. Tirpitz was first disabled by midget sub attack and then sunk by (massive) aerial bombs, and Roma became the first (and only) battleship to be sunk by guided missile. Bismarck, Prince of Wales, Yamato, and Musashi all sank from underwater damage, either by torpedoes or in the case of Bismarck, by scuttling after being disabled by torpedo attack.
In retrospect, it’s a little obvious. Ships sink because there’s water in the ship. What’s the quickest way to let the water in? Blow some holes beneath the ship’s waterline!
So in light of this, let’s look at the larger context of what it means to use these 70 year-old battleships for naval gunfire support.
First, you don’t need battleships to fight enemies like ISIS or the Taliban (even aside from the fact that they’re running around in landlocked deserts). There’s no point in using 16-inch guns against guys running around with Kalashnikovs. You’d use them against against dug-in, well-equipped enemies with advanced weaponry.
But then, in order to use their guns to hit targets on land, the battleships have to operate close to shore. These shallow littoral waters are perfect hunting grounds for diesel-electric submarines —the same kinds of subs that are so hard to find that one can pop up in the middle of a US Navy carrier battlegroup without being detected. And shallow water makes it much harder to hunt down submarines.
Well-equipped enemies with advanced weapons that have shorelines that are relevant for battleships have lots and lots of submarines. Heck even North Korea, poor as it is, has a fleet of them. Other potential foes like Iran or China have many more subs of much more advanced designs.
This means, in order to use battleships for naval bombardment, you’d be running huge, expensive, noisy ships that are particularly vulnerable to torpedo attack in shallow littoral waters that are the perfect hunting ground for submarines. And that is just a stupid idea. Pretty much any adversary that would call for battleships to be used would pose a major submarine threat, and those that don’t could be easily taken care of with drone strikes that are much more precise.
DK Brown, the famous naval historian, wrote that
It is often said that the battleship died because it was vulnerable. This is incorrect, it was replaced by the fleet carrier which was much more vulnerable. The battleship died because it was far less capable than the carrier of inflicting damage on the enemy.
In this case, the battleship is not only still less capable of inflicting damage than the possible alternatives, it is also uniquely vulnerable. And that’s one more reason why we’ll never see them make a comeback