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The New Battleships

June 2, 2008

The Russian Federation Navy Udaloy-class guided missile destroyer RFNS Admiral Levchenko (DDG 605), foreground, and the guided missile cruiser USS Hue City (CG 66) maneuver alongside one another.

Martin Sieff reports on the return of the Russian “Carrier Killer” missile cruiser Varyag to the Pacific Fleet in a series of articles (here and here). Galrahn is none too pleased with the 20 year old ex-Soviet design, dubbing it a “third rate battleship”. We agree that such a vessel with its huge superstructure and highly visible missile tubes sans a vertical launcher would be hard-pressed to get anywhere near a US Navy carrier group, perhaps only in a suicide run like the Japanese Yamato in 1945.

We recall reading the book by the commander of the British Falklands Task Force Admiral Sandy Woodward (One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander) years ago. In it he detailed when in command of a County class destroyer armed with Exocet missiles utilizing stealth and guile to slip up on a US carrier during an allied training exercise. The great Woodward obviously possessed the luck that a Varyag would need against the US fleet. A modern attack sub would need no such good fortune to perform the same mission, as we have seen in recent times.

Galrahn also has an interesting rating system as I mentioned, and he dubs more modern and powerful Aegis warships, plus those possessed by our allies as First Rate battleships. As a way of simplifying this system, I would lump all such missile firing warships with Aegis or a similar type air defense system, whether they are called cruisers, destroyers, or frigates as “battleships”. Going further, we can lump aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, and sealift into a single Sea Base category. Smaller frigates (the ASW type, not the large missile ships of European navies), corvettes, fast attack craft, and patrol craft will be labeled as “littoral ships”. Finally, we contend the attack submarine as a true modern “cruiser”, heir to such long range defenders of the British Empire in its heyday, and in a major missile exchange at sea perhaps something greater.

Traditionally, a battleship would be a vessel with the most armor and heaviest guns at sea, but we think this archaic terminology a mistake. We have no doubt that even the ancient Varyag would make short work of a tremendous Bismarck or Iowa class. The big ships might hope in vain for the smaller and lightly armored cruiser to get within range of even its secondary 5 inch cannon, while the latter would stand off in perfect safety devastating its far larger adversary with its 16 supersonic cruise missiles at a range of 550 km.

So we see it is not so much size or function of a vessel which makes it a battleship, but the weapon it carries, in the case of the modern warship, its guided missiles. Some examples of such weapons can be found in navies all over the globe:

The new American DDG-1000 Zumwalt class is certainly in this category, but proof of how the desire for ever larger and more powerful ships can get out of hand. We believe this should be a one-off experiment, much like the titanic cruiser USS Long Beach of the 1950s, until a more sensible and affordable design can come into being. Later cruisers were actually large destroyers (DLG and DLGN) which until 1975 were called frigates in the US Navy. Modern 21st Century vessels should be more stealthy that these mentioned above and the addition of VLS is a stimulus to bury as much as practical of the superstructure within the hull.

The primary reason for a reclassification of the missiles ships is a matter of “calling a spade a spade”. For several decades now the USN has been fostering new warships on Congress which they dub “destroyers” but would have been considered heavy cruisers 50 years ago, or battleships 100 years previously (HMS Queen of 1904 was 14,000 tons compared to the DDG-1000 of 14,000 tons). The idea that such massive battle wagons are comparable to the hard-hitting greyhounds of World War 2 which averaged then about 2500 tons or less and could be built in many hundreds is a huge stretch.

10 Comments leave one →
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