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Take Your Punishment Like a Battleship

July 2, 2008

An inconvenient fact about the modern cruise missile is unless it is intercepted in mid-flight, it will more likely than not hit its intended target. What this bodes for the future of war at sea we can’t be sure, but in the handful of naval battles that involved the exchange of such weapons we can conclude the surface warships weren’t well prepared for the consequences.

Today’s surface combatants are constructed with the intention that attacking missiles will be intercepted before their target is reached. This would assume then that a 100% kill ratio is expected from the anti-missile missile. But considering the use of cruise missiles in Arab/Israeli conflicts, the Falklands War, and against America in the 1980s Tanker War, such a perfect success rate for the defense is pure fantasy.

In contrast, up until the Second World War naval vessels were constructed with the expectation that they would receive varying degrees of battle damage. Major warships such as battleships, cruisers, and often aircraft carriers were designed from the outset with enough protection for the amount of bomb, torpedo, or shell-fire they could expect. Considering the woeful inaccuracy of guns, numerous salvos were required to ensure a direct hit. Once the right range was discovered woeful devastation could be expected, yet many vessels survived numerous hits.

A justification for the return of the Iowa class battleships to service in the 1980s was this forgotten lesson and the vulnerability of modern warships. Most notable was the loss of the new destroyer HMS Sheffield to a single Exocet missile in the 1982 Falklands War, which sounded many naval alarms. It was then felt that despite the obsolescence of short range gunfire ( except for naval bombardment), the plentiful armor of the last battle wagons geared for absorbing 16 inch shell fire might also be extremely survivable in the missile age.

 Newer Arleigh Burke class destroyers are equipped with 70 tons of Kevlar armor protecting vulnerable space onboard, as well as being constructed almost entirely of steel. Likewise the San Antonio amphibious ships carry enhanced shock protection against a nuclear blast. Otherwise the cost of protection carried by the old gunships is prohibitive when the expense of modern electronics and guided weapons are factored in. Still, in a major war at sea involving cruise missiles on a wide scale, the loss of major naval units might change design priorities.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. charbookguy permalink
    July 4, 2008 1:34 pm

    Thanks for stopping by! Yes, 60 years without a major war at sea and I think we may have become complacent. And I also worry about how much more capable the submarine has become since then, especially recalling how difficult they were to control in the world wars. But that’s another posting…

  2. Vmaximus permalink
    July 3, 2008 10:51 pm

    I have often wondered why we do not armor our ships. Granted we have gone 30-40 years without needing any. (If the Cole had armor would it have been damaged like it was?) And what about the Starke? I had a friend that was on board at the time and he had to carry pieces of his shipmates to the morgue.
    I live in a flood zone, I have to have flood insurance for a 100 year storm. Shouldn’t the Navy have to be prepared for the eventuality of a shooting war? If they are not I expect heads to roll when we loose capital ships.

    Oh I have been lurking for a while, nice blog you have here!

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