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The 100 Battleship Navy

February 9, 2009

Looking back to the Heritage Foundation’s recent plan to upgrade America’s “Future Fleet”, which we posted on previously:

The Navy’s future force structure is the minimum size needed to secure U.S. maritime interests, but it lacks the proper internal balance and sufficient funding for the necessary shipbuilding rates. Specifically, it shortchanges aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and attack submarines in favor of littoral combat ships.

At what point in recent history has the conventional battle force ships been shortchanged? Certainly not in the Clinton/Bush era, when the sole surface combatant under construction until LCS has been the Burke class destroyers, an excellent design of a 9000+ tons warship, but at $2 billion each a prime reason why we struggle with less than 300 ship navy. The idea then that the Big Ship Navy is somehow inadequate for future needs becomes ludicrous, as Galrahn details:

Hidden in plain sight within Chris Cavas’s article is the fact the Navy’s FY10 budget plan will include 4 of the largest, most modern, most capable, most expensive battleships in the entire world. In FY 2010 alone, the Navy will be seeking money to complete the purchase of the third DDG-1000, a ship the Navy doesn’t even want, and also seek both R&D and SCN funding for a brand new DDG-51 Flight III ship to be purchased in FY 2010, which the Navy does want.

The new plan will also include the previously mentioned Future Surface Combatant (FSC), also known as either DDG-51 Flight IV (or block 4) or CGL-9, that the Navy would begin purchasing in FY 2012. There are a total of 18 Future Surface Combatants in the Navy’s 30 year plan. Finally, the FY 2010 shipbuilding plan includes an 8 ship class of 22,000 ton nuclear powered ballistic missile defense cruisers scheduled starting in 2017 to be built every 3 years over a period of 24 years, what some are calling the CG(X) or the CGN-42 class.

We have gone then from “Next-war-itis” to Battleship Disease. Where does this obsession with heavy warships to fight some hypothetical foe comes from? We need only trace it as far as the 600-ship Navy of the 1980s, and the lessons the US Navy leadership took from the Falklands Conflict between the UK and Argentina. After the Royal lost 4 frigates and destroyers to enemy action, the brains at the Navy Department came to the conclusion that cheap construction material, and the small size of the ships involved was the culprit, as then Navy Secretary John Lehman writes in his book “On Seas of Glory“:

“The other lesson-clearly stated-is that relying exclusively on smaller, cheaper, less well-armed combatants can be a false economy. They are more vulnerable, as demonstrated by the loss of the four Royal Navy combatants. If any of the sixteen successful attacks against British Ships had instead hit the battleship New Jersey, it would not have done sufficient damage to prevent continuing operations of the ship. The Exocet missile that sank the Sheffield would not have been able to penetrate the armor anywhere on the battleship. Unlike many of its critics, the Navy retains its institutional memory of World War II, when it lost a ship a day at Okinawa.

Sadly, what is forgotten in those dark days in the Pacific War, at least the Navy had the ships to replace those losses, because ships then were easy to manufacture in large numbers because they were much smaller and far cheaper. Though the Secretary may have a point if he thought that the new missiles would only aim for the New Jersey’s heavily armored hide, battleships losses culminated from hits on its deck. The old fashioned “dumb” bombs carried by Argentine fliers in 1982 were more of a threat to the Iowa class than the much more modern Exocets.

Moreover, after the incidents of the 1982 war, several other “smaller, cheaper, less well-armed combatants” survived similar attacks. The USS Stark in 1987 was hit by 2 Exocets and heavily damaged, though she made it under her own power to repairs in Bahrain. Recently, the smaller Israeli corvette Hanit was hit by a Hezbollah fired C-108 cruise missile. Again, the lighter warship “stayed afloat, got itself out of the line of fire, and made the rest of the journey back to Ashdod for repairs on its own.” (Quote via Wikipedia)

Ironically, in 2000, while in port, the 9000 ton US battleship Cole, a Burke class supership, was struck by an Al Qaeda manned suicide boat, which blasted a 40 foot gash in the hull and killed 17 sailors. Even with makeship repairs, the giant Cole had to be carried by salvage ship back to the US, and was out of service for a year. While we in no way disparage the valiant destroyer nor the sacrifice of her brave crew, its goes to show how no vessel is totally invulnerable to attack, and size isn’t proof positive from destruction.


Where will it end? The attitude seems to coincide where the government and the economy is these days. With both so huge and mismanaged that all is crumbling beyond recognition, so it will be with the Navy. It is currently so top heavy with Big Ships that when war finally comes and the exchange of missiles begins, the Navy will wish it had heeded those who warned that many good ships is better than a few supposedly perfect ones.

Recalling back to Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, we discovered the billions we spent on strategic weapons, high tech battleships, and super stealthy bombers did us little good when facing a low-tech and elusive foe. This is practically the only type of warfare we have fought since WW 2 but the Pentagon will quickly shut up critics when they say “we have to keep these large conventional forces, just in case”. Meanwhile, we are bankrupt.

I don’t think we should do away with all high tech platforms. I worry about the “just in case” scenario as well. But for the balance to be wholly on the side of Future Wars is a waste of resources, and a waste of good troops, airmen, and sailors when war does come, but not the one we planned for.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 20, 2009 5:56 am

    Thanks for your interesting comments and questions Shirley, and thanks to your husband for his service! I will try to answer as best as I can.

    Large armored battleships of the type your husband served on are almost certainly a thing of the past, especially the use of the heavy cannon as its main armament. Today’s warships fight with cruise missiles and the gun is a secondary armament, used mainly for shore bombardment. Some of the first guided missiles cruisers actually went to sea without any large guns at all!

    I am not sure about the “silver service” on battleships. Perhaps our other readers might know? (Did a brief google search and there are numerous mentions of silver service on other battleships)

    The new Virginia class submarines are named after US states like the battleships, but apparently this rule is not set in stone. One of the latest boats will be named USS John Warner after the Senator who sponsored so many subs built in the state. Politics rule as Admiral Rickover once said “fish don’t vote”.

  2. Shirley permalink
    May 19, 2009 11:06 pm

    My husband served on the USS Maryland, BB 46 in the Pacific. He is now 89 years of age. We have lived in Arizona since 1951. I am volunteering in the Capitol Museum here in Phoenix, where one of the anchors from the Arizona is displayed, as well as it’s silver service, and a piece of the destroyed Arizona.
    I have a few questions: 1) Am I correct that battleships will no
    longer be built? The above article seems to confirm that.
    2) Did every battleship have a silver service? And if so, have they been put on dislay in the state for which they were named?
    3) Are nuclear submarines now going to carry the names of states, as battleships did? For instance, there is a USS Maryland nuclear submarine, which was commissioned several years back.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 1, 2009 8:25 pm

    Sadly Robert, I think the Iowas are gone for good. What are the odds we will have a war within easy reach of its 16 inch guns?

  4. Robert Samual permalink
    April 1, 2009 11:20 am

    The problem with so many arguments about the fleet is based on perceived missions, not possible missions. The truth is there are several huge holes in the fleet and no answers. We need 12 carriers to allow air support when needed since we have few air bases outside of Nato. We need Burkes and cruisers to protect the carriers. We need more amphibious ships to support marine operations. What we lack mostly is the small patrol ships (the old DDE or DD’s) which were built by the 100’s in WW2 and fire support ships. The navy has lost the ability to build a combat effective light ship though the Littoral series is an attempt to start filling the gap. The lack of knowledge and operational experience will take a decade to correct. The fire support issue is more complicated. There is a love of the missle and high tech in the navy and a lack of concern for simple hitting power. The marines and the Army have found repeatedly that artillary is a critical requirement that can not be replaced by missles on the modern battlefield. With the removal from the fleet of battleships, there is nothing that can support land operations except aircraft and a few destroyers. The Zim’s were supposed to take care of that, but a multi-billon dollar ship with little protective armour will not be allowed to operate in harms way. That is the truth. It is also the truth that its weapons can deliver support close to shore for a limited time, but no one is going to airlift in ammunition to a ship under fire. The Navy needs to be honest about the requirement. Contrary to popular myth, the iowas were not modernized in the 80’s beyond superficial upgrades in part because the Navy did not want them. If the Navy were honest about this mission, it would look at the Iowas and consider what could really be done with them. Start with replacing their boilers and steam turbines with gas turbines, eliminating hundreds of sailors. Replace the old 5″ manual twin guns with modern automated 5″ guns. Can the 16 inch guns be automated? Has anyone even looked? The truth is the navy has no fire support capability and the arm chair admirals do not care.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    February 11, 2009 7:56 am

    Yeah, if you need it, thats fine. My point was that the little ships can take a heavy punch sometimes and no warship is invulnerable. We have a very defensive mindset in the fleet that we can’t lose ships, but in a major war, this is quite common. We got a real shock at Pearl. Here’s hoping that sort of wakeup call isn’t to be repeated in our future.

  6. leesea permalink
    February 11, 2009 12:22 am

    The USS Samuel B Roberts was also carried home on a flo/flo chartered by MSC.


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