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Redefining the Battleship

January 5, 2009

A commenter from the Ultimate Warship’s group inspired this little discussion, concerning the ANN article titled “Navy May Trade P-8s For Battleship“. The battleship in the story refers to the DDG-1000 Zumwalt, classified as a guided missile destroyer, though at 14,000 tons each might be a close match to the mighty dreadnoughts of the last century. From Merriam-Webster we get a pretty standard definition:

A warship of the largest and most heavily armed and armored class.

From the Free Dictionary, something similar:

Any one of a class of warships of the largest size, carrying the greatest number of weapons and clad with the heaviest armor. is more specific:

1794, shortened from line-of-battle ship (1705), one large enough to take part in a main attack (formerly one of 74-plus guns).

hms_barham_28191429HMS Barham-The Battleship Ideal

It appears then that the term battleship is used more as a synonym for warships than an actually specific type. With the last of the Iowa class decommissioned in the 1990s, and European and Asian vessels long since gone to the scrap heap, it may be understandable that the term is used rather loosely these days. Not counting the final definition, we might conclude that the Zumwalt and other large missile ships, whether called cruisers, destroyers, or frigates are today’s battleships  as Galrahn contends:

The Navy has already paid for 22 CG-52s, 62 DDG-51s, and 2 DDG-1000s. That is a fleet of 86 battleships, enough already! Take a look around the world and compare conditions to the Navy’s shipbuilding strategy. Japan, the second largest Navy in the world, has 6 battleships. South Korea will soon have 6, Great Britain is building 6, Spain will soon have 6, and no one anywhere on the planet has more than 6 or plans for more than 6, except the United States. I’m counting first-rate through fourth-rate surface combatants, ships armed with 48 or more battle force VLS cells, and/or 48 or more battle force missiles. Japan, South Korea, Great Britain, and Spain are all allies, who exactly are we building more battleships to fight against?

And yours truly wrote something similar in  post titled The New Battleships a while back:

Traditionally, a battleship would be a vessel with the most armor and heaviest guns at sea, but we think this archaic terminology a mistake…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, it’s guided missiles.

980802-N-3612M-015Japanese Kongo Class Aegis Destroyer

But, to confuse the issue even more, Robert Farley posts on LPD: The New Dreadnought?:

Another interesting article in the April 3 Defense News concerns the increasing focus of the world’s navies on “expeditionary” ships, like LPDs, LHDs, LCCs, LHAS, command ships, and so forth. Broadly, this group includes just about any ship that is designed to manage, project, and protect ground expeditions as a primary mission. These ships are large, expensive, tend to carry helicopters, and usually have the capability to deliver and keep supplied a contingent of ground forces…The amphibious assault ship spree is somewhat reminiscent of the drive, around 1910, of a number of major and minor powers to purchase or build dreadnought battleships.

Seeing the increased emphasis on littoral warfare and navies supporting ground troops ashore, we see where the author might be justified in calling the amphibious ship a “dreadnought”. It certainly is, at least in its own environment.

fs_mistral_01France’s Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship-The New Dreadnought?

But there are also those who claim the modern battleship is the attack submarine. A perfect stealth vessel in its undersea haunts, the modern nuclear boat rivals its surface cousins in the ability to fire long-range missiles while submerged, but it is less able to influence events in the shallow seas.

And dare we say that the dominant capital ship at least for the US Navy is its fleet of giant supercarriers? Should this vessel which displaced the centuries old reign of the original gun battleship now take up its former rivals sacred moniker? Perhaps instead to avoid the confusion we should relegate the title of Battleship back to the synonyms where it is safe from controversy!

21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2013 4:37 am

    Outstanding. I agree.

  2. Jimmie Ray Giboney permalink
    June 14, 2011 3:43 am

    Hello! I have a hard enough time trying to get dummies that I know in person and the general news media as a whole, to know the difference between “boat” and “ship” let alone “battleship” and “warship”, without blogs like this one wanting to confuse the issue and make it worse by stating that “warship” and “battleship” as synonyms is okay! Sheesh! Until there can be the Outer Space version of a BB, they are now an “obsolete” form of warship, even if I have difficulty with that, since I just love to use that word when I play the game, “Battleship”. (I’m hoping that the upcoming movie based on said game actually uses a battleship, and uses the word “battleship” in the proper context.) People used to say “iron-clad” to refer to a new type of warship, until it became moot thanks to all metal hulls with no wood involved. But today, when people who are aware of what an iron-clad warship is, think of such, they think of those old ships from the 19th Century, not say, uh, somebody’s yacht made of old clothes irons! When people who are aware of what a battleship is, think of what one looks like, they should imagine those like the one in your example, or the USS NEW JERSEY, et al. Not the new type vessels being invented! Yes, I am aware of the origin of the word “battleship”. I’ve read just about every article I could find. Okay, that’s all for now.

  3. george permalink
    March 22, 2010 4:17 pm


  4. Joe permalink
    March 7, 2010 12:44 pm


    I think we’re in agreement on the logic of reevaluating & refitting the Iowa-class boats for modern service. I slayed a decent amt of bandwidth making my arguments for consideration, so the continual stream of visitors to this post can decide if we’re both high on nostalgia or addicted to diversity and value in our weapons platforms.

    I think your arguments for the AC-130 are as spot-on as is that “air battleship’s” accuracy in demolishing a wide range of targets. Jokingly, the AC-130’s are almost like a line of dialogue you’d imagine hearing in a Bond movie, “So, Mr. Bond, what method of death would you like to suffer today?” Why we aren’t building the hell out of them is a mystery.

    Per the retooled Ohio’s, with a combo of TLAM/MLRS, they would make an interesting & logical choice for a reimagined “battleship” in the modern interpretation of the word. It’s the ultimate expression of stealth w/o the fiscal folly of attempting to build a surface platform that is invisible, then guarantee that the next generation of opponent radar or missile can’t touch it.

  5. Graham Strouse permalink
    March 2, 2010 11:04 pm

    I won’t get into the the potential servicability of the BBs for the moment, although I still believe that’s a matter worth contemplating.

    What I WILL discuss is the modern successors to the old BBs (both of which are based on old frames, incidentally… ;) ).

    I speak of course of the A-10 Warthog & AC-130H/U Spectre Spooky CAS gunships.

    Back in 2001 a puff-piece on the Spectre I wrote for IGN was quoted in Stars & Stripes. This was pretty cool, but then as now I recognized advanteges that REAL gunships (flying, floating, rolling, or submerged) have over PGM/missile platforms.

    1) They have loitering ability. They can maintain position over enemy positions and deliver heavy fire. Precision is important but secondary. What is more important is that they can hang around & deliver materially & psychologically devastating fire for an extended period of time.

    2) They are hard to kill. Whether it’s stealth, armor, inaccessibility or some combination of the above, these platforms can hang around and keep hitting the bad guys.)

    3) They have heavy magazines and serious guns. One (okay, two) advantages guns will always have or missiles is magazine size & affordability of munitions.

    4) They have a psychologically devastating effect that PGMs frankly can’t duplicate.

    5) They’re relatively easy to resupply & send back into theater. Also, it’s a hard kill. The Ac-130 relies on its high-flight patterns, superior night-fighting characteristics, size & avionics. The A-10 relies on the fact that you can shoot it to pieces and more then likely just make it mad.

    Now, the A-10 hasn’t gotten a huge workout in Afghanistan but the AC-!30 is literally flying itself apart. It’s been a devastatingly effective CAS unit. Nature of the beast. The US isn’t fighting tanks. It’s busting bunkers & hosing irregular units. The AC-130 is better equipped for this roll.

    The article I was quoted in described the AC-130 as a “flying tank.” I take exception to this. I prefer the term “flying battleship.” It’s more accurate.

    As for future naval battleships, I rather wonder whether re-envisioned Ohios, Los Angelas, or Virginias might be the ticket.

    I’m rather a fan of the the modified SSGNs but there’s still the quesion of ammo availability. I wonder whether a rehabilitated Ohio with fewer TLAM banks and semi-guided MLRS capability might be the way to go if we REALLY want to re-envision the battleship.

  6. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 8, 2009 4:49 pm

    Hey, I owned a ’48 Plymouth street rod with a seriously worked small block Chevy years back that could smoke a Porsche in a straight line. Only problem was the Camaro sub-frame didn’t have a power-steering pump & frankly, all that power scared me crazy…. ;)

    I think I’m pretty much with Joe here. I am, admittedly, a battleship romantic & I wouldn’t want to bring the battle-wagons without a thorough consideration from the Chiefs & the CBO, but it’s worth consideration. The main consideration, as I understand it, is the state of the engines. Then again, these puppies had pretty smokin’ engines themselves. At 33-35 knots, most MODERN destroyers would have a hard time keeping up.

    As for the steel, well, it’s bloody steel. I live an hour or two from both Bethlehem & Allentown. The plants are still there & hey, we could use the jobs.

    Anyway, speaking hypothetically, if it was feasible to bring back, say, two Iowas, I’d pitch the box launchers & replace them with something like the old ASROC & take advantage of the helo/UAV capability. I don’t imagine it would be hard to re-invent DARPA’s extended range sabots (a cheap 11″ “light round” with a 50-100 mile range suits me fine).

    I’d probably ditch the old 5″/38s for a lighter, more automated secondary battery for defense against FAC & close air.

    I’d DEFINITELY upgrade the electronics–this is actually easier to do on older ships with non-integrated computer systems. Modular electronics are inherently easier to upgrade. Anyone whose ever worked in an office with a really big networked computer system knows what I’m saying.

    Upgrade the CIWS with a few SeaRam launchers for SAM defense & you’re good to go.

    BTW: The 16″/50 super-heavy shell weighs 2,700 pounds, costs about $500 bucks & has a range of about 25 miles, incidentally. You can carry a lot at that price. Conveniently, about 80% of the world’s population lives within 20 miles of the ocean.

    I recall reading once that an Iowa could deliver the equivalent devastation of two CVN sorties in about two hours.

    And there’s that loitering capability….

    Everything old becomes new again, they say. Although I’ll grant that modern super-cavitation torpedos could present a problem, the waterline is where the armor is thickest. And semi-armor-piercing sea-skimming missiles would be pretty much useless against an Iowa.

    Granted, that’s if everything was feasible. But it IS worth thinking on.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 25, 2009 12:52 pm

    I plan on discussing this subject more next week, Joe, but your statement “the potential advantages of the battleships were taken into consideration and only the disadvantages emphasized”, makes a good point, as does bringing up the DDG-1000. Often the Navy will scrap still useful vessels just to ensure some future uncertain but high tech project gets funding. They have a wish list and the public is expected to fill it, no questions asked, and no complaints if it doesn’t pan out.

  8. Joe permalink
    November 25, 2009 12:38 pm

    Practical and useful share many of the same definitional terms. Given we’re talking about the Navy and budgets, it really comes down to whether or not it’s economical to revive some # of the existing battleships, all mission and cost factors considered.

    I don’t want any “con” factors ignored for the sake of nostalgia. The doubts you raised are legitimate. I don’t speak for Graham, but I think it fair to say that he and I tend to doubt that any of the potential advantages of the battleships were taken into consideration and only the disadvantages emphasized – in combination with the jobs! jobs! jobs! angle of building an utterly ridiculous ship like the DDG-1000.

    The same process that he & I feel has kept buried a platform that merits reevaluation is part and parcel to what’s done to keep locked in the attic those that would have the navy consider something other than gold-plated albatrosses when it comes to new-build vessels…like you advocate.

    Despite the number of words expended and hopes expressed, I imagine the battleships are where they shall remain for the rest of our natural lives. Hopefully the chances of changing the new-build strategy/philosophy of the navy aren’t similarly moored.

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 24, 2009 3:44 pm

    “I can only imagine Mike rolling his eyes at the notion of reviving/refitting them”

    Pretty much. I question the requirement for naval fire support from 16 inch guns, but mainly because they are so crew-intensive.

    Sure we could find something for them to do. Battleships are useful, the question being “are they practical”?

  10. Joe permalink
    November 24, 2009 1:12 pm

    @ Graham: I agree 100%. I have a saved article from the March 1996 American Legion magazine titled, “The Last Battleship”, by Miles Z. Epstein. The opening paragraph reads…

    They are almost 900 feet long and 108 feet wide. Their 16-inch guns can propel a shell as heavy as your car nearly 30 miles with enough explosive powder to blast a crater 100 feet in diameter. Add to that a dozen 5″ guns, four 20mm, six-barrel Phalanx “Gating Guns”, 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 16 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and the modern American battleship is a floating arsenal.

    What’s funny is that later on in the article, an unidentified Navy spokesman says the primary reason we don’t need the battleships any longer is that we have other ships that can do their job for less money. The ship he mentions…the now-discontinued Spruance Destroyers, lol.

    Anyway, I try to leave the nostalgia out of it and wonder, simply, if they could effectively fill a role today for a competitive price. A B-52 is my model in this thought process.

    I can only imagine Mike rolling his eyes at the notion of reviving/refitting them, but *I don’t think* it’s in total opposition to his overall philosophy. True, it violates his “go small” approach, I admit, but it’s heavily oriented in nature towards the extraction of maximum value for the dollar spent. We may never again see on this planet ships built that can theoretically withstand hits from 3300-lb shells, 2,200-lb bombs, and the explosive power of 24-inch torpedoes and keep on fighting. Whatever role one might have them fill, that kind of built-in defensiveness doesn’t exist today.

    Would I consider new-build Iowas or Montanas…no. Whatever their true cost would otherwise be, the interior designers at the DoD would turn them into $10 – $20 billion+ fashion plates that probably wouldn’t even sail under their own power. I’ve only wasted this amount of bandwidth simply because:

    1. We own them.
    2. Their basic structure was paid for in 1940’s dollars.
    3. Despite their chronological age, they are far from being a naval equivalent of Al Bundy’s 1 million mile family Dodge car.

    In the interests of being fair, if a balanced and objective review process nixed the idea of ever bringing them back, I would accept that if the study could withstand the cleansing power of direct sunlight. The ships are not just all upside potential. But when the axis of evil (Congress, Navy and General Dynamics) comes up with something like the DDG-1000 to ‘replace’ the Iowas, the process smells like anything but b&o and instead more like BO.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 24, 2009 4:41 am

    Graham said “I wonder if you’re benefiting from my word-count”


    Graham-It is a safe bet to go with the submarine and I lean toward this way myself. I think in a full-fledged war at sea, there may be some surprises for the surface navy.

    Also see the modern missile escort, call it cruiser, destroyer, or frigate in this role because the primary weapon at sea is the guided missile, and it has become a primary “carrier” of this weapon in its own right.

    The main drawback of the old gun battleship was range of its ordnance. However powerful was the presence of such a monolith at sea, it still controlled only about 15-20 miles of territory around itself. The guided missile in contrast, with radar support can dominate an area hundreds of miles away. In this it is also duplicating the role of the aircraft carrier, at far less cost. The one benefit of the manned naval fighter over missiles has been economy and persistence (able to do sorties), but with the increased promised of “reusable cruise missiles”, UCAVs at sea, even this will soon change.

    I am also against armoring warships because the thin-skinned carriers and light destroyers are what won the last great war at sea in the Pacific, dispelling all pre-war ideas of combat that power and presence of floating fortresses would always prevail. In this era of many lethal threats, I think we must relearn these lessons all over again.

  12. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 24, 2009 2:57 am


    I wonder about this A LOT. I’ve read a lot about rust & old engines but seriously, I live a couple hours away from the old steel mills in Bethlehem & Allentown. And it’s much easier to rebuild old technology then create new tech. I’ve also heard that the boilers were getting manky. This may be but I’m just old enough to remember planned obsolescence as well.

    Seems to me that Iowa & Wisconsin at least could be revivified & modernized. Scrap DDG-1000 entirely, a few new Burke builds & take a fraction of the funds & put it into repairing and upgrading at least two Iowas.

    I could be wrong, of course, but I honestly suspect that the decision to stuff the BBs into museum berths had more to do with a desire to create more scratch-built systems, farm more pork & waste more money on a handful of powerful Senatorial constituencies with ship-building & tech industries.

    EVEN THE HOUSE (not the Senate–Senate’s even slimier) was dubious about putting Iowa & Wisconsin to pasture as recently as 2006, I believe.

  13. Joe permalink
    November 23, 2009 11:20 pm

    Here is an article posted today on the Moscow Times website about the Mistral. Per Google there were 313 related articles. Speaking to how much the Mistral would raise the ability of Moscow to land troops, from the article…

    The head of the Navy has said a Mistral-class vessel could put as many troops in Georgia in 40 minutes as the Black Sea Fleet took 26 hours to land during the countries’ August 2008 war.

    @Graham – Good points about the Iowas. My late father served in WW2 (not on board a battleship) and was furious when Bush I made the decisions to retire the ships. He knew technology was changing & that the peace dividend argued for it, but always pounded away on points pretty close to what you make. He always felt they were too much ship to simply turn them into floating museums.

    If nothing else, I wonder what the cost/benefit analysis looked like if you took spin out of the equations on reinvesting & upgrading 2, 3, or all 4 of them for the close-in needs of today versus investing in & pursuing the DDG-1000.

  14. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 23, 2009 11:06 pm

    Mike, thanks, I didn’t know how it worked.

  15. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 23, 2009 9:55 pm


    I wonder if you’re benefiting from my word-count. ;)

  16. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 23, 2009 9:52 pm

    If you’re looking for the modern battleship, I think the top candidates are the four converted Ohio SSGNs. They’re versatile, hard to find, hard to kill, capable of loitering, carry 154 missiles, 66-102 SEALs & can basically screw up your day in a huge way. Personally, I think they’d be be more lethal if we could come up with a cheaper alternative to the TLAM, even if some capability was sacrified–reloads would be nice, btw. Anyway, the SSGN Ohios are the TRUE new battleships.

    Honestly, I’m not all that worked up about the cost of the refits–something like $2.7 billion for all four ships combined….without the TLAMs. It’s the missile cost I find problematic. I mean, a 16″/50 shell costs like $500 bucks & the Iowas proved to be VERY capable in Korea, Viet Nam, Lebanon & Gulf War I with upgrades. The thing about the Iowas was that they were, well, real battleships. They could deliver enormous amounts of ordnance (far more then a carrier), loiter with impunity–short of a nuke, nothing could touch them & were easy to upgrade. The new electronics were modular, not integrated, which made for easier installtion. Throw in some CIWS & box launchers, the old 5″/38 battery for giggles & frankly, you had a VERY capable green/brown water ship. I hear the steel is rusty & the engines were going but honestly, if feasible, I’d prefer the OLD battleships for littorial operations to the new battleships if it were economically feasible.

    I am a fan of the Ohios but a TLAM costs, what $500k? We could sacrifice some capability for volume & replacement cost here, people. Missiles are more effective shore-to-ship then ship-to-shore. It’s a cost-benefit issue. Reduce the cost and we’re talking.

    Hey, everything old is new again at some point. Our most effective long-range bombers are B-52s. Our best COIN armed recon/CAS plane is the AC-130U: We’re literally flying the wings off them in Afghanistan. We have around 21 AC-130Hs & AC-130Us combined & although they’re expensive (about $190 million for the newest models), they’re brutally effective. The best day-time CAS plane we probably have is still the AC-10 & they’re pretty inexpensive.

    Arguably, these are all new battleships & you know what, they’re all either upgraded old ships reconfigured creatively or simple, purpose-built weapons systems built from the ground-up without interference from the Senator From Bath Iron Works (and colleagues).

    Israel’s HAPCs are based on T-54/55 & Merkava chassis. They didn’t re-invent the wheel. They looked at what they had and said, “What can we do with this to get the job done?” They do this very well.

    And we build 14,000 ton, $5 billion dollar destroyer/battleships using hull-forms rejected a century a ago ’cause they tend to sink a lot in bad weather. Oh, and the weapons systems are sorta pointless. Because tech-geeks & a few Senators with disproportionate power want to bring jobs to their states so they can keep their own jobs.

    Next time I’ll tell y’all how I really feel. Graham out.

  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 23, 2009 9:21 pm

    Chuck, someone, somewhere has linked to this on the net and has pushed its readership to the top! Something about battleships, people love them!

    Also interesting a post I wrote almost a year ago is beating out today’s new article 3-1! I think because there is a photo of the French Mistral, much in the news today.

  18. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 23, 2009 6:44 pm

    Why is this listed as a “Top Post?”


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