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Back to the Battleship Pt 1

November 30, 2009

Russian Battle Cruiser Peter the Great. Author-Digitaldarkroomcreator via Wikimedia Commons.

Some familiar terms used to describe the DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyers was prevalent in the following article by Andrew Rhys Thompson at the ISN Security Watch:

The US Navy is expected to launch the next-generation DDG-1000 Zumwalt class stealth destroyers in 2013 as it seeks to use cutting-edge technology to reintroduce the overwhelming firepower capabilities of a battleship on the much smaller and more agile platform of a destroyer.

While the three vessels of this line are likely to be the most sophisticated warships ever built, their unconventional design and unusual stealth appearance makes them seem more like iron-clad behemoths from the pre-Dreadnought days of the late 19th century.

Indeed, many of the firepower requirements that the US Navy has – coupled with the development and production of the Zumwalt class – are reminiscent of tactical battleship parameters from the first half of the 20th century, which later went out of fashion after World War II. 

Note that in each paragraph reference is made to the most  powerful gun armed and armored warship ever to sail the seas, the dreadnought battleship of the 20th Century. The attraction such giant and awe inspiring surface vessels made on a generation can be glimpsed in these words, as they continue to fascinate years after the last one plied the waves.

What defines a Battleship?

Regular readers may also notice an unrestrained use of the term “battleship” here at New Wars, and we have received much critique for this practice. The reason behind our free reference to modern warships in this manner, is to take our eyes off the enchantment of Big Ships and a return to practicality in warfare. For example, the might and the power of the dreadnoughts are often recalled, despite the ease these vessels were sunk from what seemed minor threats at the time. In 1914, the 24,000 ton HMS Audacious is sunk by a single mine. In 1918, the 20,000 ton Austro Hungarian Szent István is struck by two torpedos from a single Italian torpedo boat, capsizing soon as recored in some historic video footage. HMS Barham is hit by 3 torpedos in the Mediterranean from a U-boat, going down with the loss of 800+ of her crew. All tremendous and important vessels, but with weak spots just as any warship, and usually taking many lives with them when they did sink.

There is nothing wrong with admiring a grand ship which symbolized an entire era of nautical engineering, but neither should we try to fit outdated techniques into a new era of warfare. So we would hope that the idea of a navy’s capital ship would be that of the most important vessel in the fleet, one most useful, one deemed a clear threat to an enemy, rather than a misplaced faith in visible power and might. To some small fleet, a frigate, corvette, or even a submarine might be a battleship, if it performs that duty of deterrence in peacetime, and a warship during conflict. Such a naval weapon is still crucial to that nation and may yet determine the fate of the future, regardless of its size.

Who Needs Them?

Before we decide which vessel today holds the title of honor, there is a need to expose the threats to modern vessels at sea, and act accordingly. First there must be a need which would induce a country’s shipbuilding resources to respond. The question is, should we continue to plan for the type of sea battles that typified the World Wars and the Cold War, or might we be in a different environment, where Big Ships have little place, and more is expected from smaller ships than the norm? From UPI Asia, here is a report on how “Low-tech terror tactics challenge high-tech armies“, within which it also discusses the challenges facing modern fleets:

Sea warfare changed radically after the U.S. warship USS Cole was attacked and crippled in Aden harbor on Oct. 12, 2000 by a simple fishing boat packed with explosives. The boat, guided by two suicide bombers, cost a few thousand dollars but disabled a US$300-million destroyer for over three years.
Sea pirates operating in and off the Somalia coast also employ jihad-style tactics. They can use simple contact and antenna-moored mines to cause extensive damage to expensive surface and subsurface sea combatants.

The captains of SSBN and SSN ballistic nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers give mined areas a wide berth. The damage caused to the U.S. Navy’s missile-guided frigate, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, in 1989 by a floating mine had the embarrassing consequence that warships entering the Gulf began taking cover behind tankers and ships that they should have been protecting.
U.S. amphibious operations planned during Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf in 1991 were nullified as mines laid by Iraqi forces hit landing ships.
The end of the Cold War changed the naval emphasis to littoral warfare, or operations in coastal waters. However, ships built for mid-ocean combat are seriously hampered in coastal waters and a complete revamp is occurring in major navies. Littoral combat ships are now under production to meet the requirements of the 21st century navies.

From this report we can get a glimpse of the threats which we face today. While admirals might prefer the old style conventional conflicts at sea using New Battleships such as aircraft carriers escorted by large missiles ships, there might be greater likelihood the enemy will use low tech asymmetrical warfare against us, in the form of cheap but effective mines, torpedoes, missiles, and suicide boats. This is not new since the same type warfare defeated the gun-minded battleship strategists of the World Wars, with aircraft, torpedo boats and a determination simply to not fight fair!

After the World Wars and the clear demise of the all-gun battleship, many naval platforms took over the functions once expected from the single massive warship. Today we have aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and nuclear attack submarines working in concert to control the sealanes and deploy firepower against land targets. Due to uncontrollable costs that have dramatically reduced the legacy warships in number, we think we are geared for yet another sea change in the type and form of ships we currently deploy to sea.

Tomorrow-Russia’s Search for a New Battleship.


14 Comments leave one →
  1. allan permalink
    May 30, 2012 10:18 am

    I personally believe that we are rapidly approaching a militaristic renaissance where, once again, the dreadnought will reign supreme.yes destroyers are powerful vessels in their own right but let me draw your attention to the Japanese super battleship Yamato, the largest battleship to ever sail earth’s ship.but it had the entire pacific fleet terrified in wolrd war imagine that but with modern materials and technology. the best weapon is the one you never have to fire, but when you must fire the dreadnoughts make sure you don’t get back up.

  2. rat permalink
    January 1, 2010 12:18 am

    have a cheap reliable ship like a WWII size destroyer or pocket battleship (within that range) and put two 5 in. guns in one hull up front and have at the back a similar size MK110 inside one frame to the back along with maybe a Exocet missiles or something anti ship in the front in the back where the huge engine stacks usually are and have two (one on each side) air to air missile launchers then have torpedo launchers on each of the sides in the middle

  3. Jed permalink
    November 30, 2009 10:00 pm

    Not sure where you pulled this one from: “USS Samuel B. Roberts, in 1989 by a floating mine had the embarrassing consequence that warships entering the Gulf began taking cover behind tankers and ships that they should have been protecting.”

    But it smells like BS to me, and I was there in that timeframe, RN not USN but I did MCM ops on 3 different RN ships between 87 and 89 and have the campaign medals (General Service Medal with Gulf Clasp) to prove it. Standing ops by the time the Roberts was hit was to have lots of lookouts in the bows, ships helos doing low level visual searches in front of the ships etc. but “hiding” behind tankers, puh-leeeze…..

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 30, 2009 7:05 pm

    Solomon wrote “A decrease in capabilities–spread over numerous hulls or the same capabilities over smaller ships?”

    I disagree that this would decrease our capabilities. I see greater numbers of ships an increase in our strength, allowing for greater presence, spreading new weaponry to areas where they are needed. The LPD-17 class you mention, is typical of how the Navy concentrates its strengths in a few over-costly, unnecessarily large platforms. This is no proof that “bigger is better” except for peacetime economical cruising. In wartime, no such metrics are allowed when all ships are at risk, as seen with the world’s most powerful warships of their day, the all-gun battleships.

    We must have diversity in platforms. Another example is the LCS, which is further evidence that multi-purpose doesn’t always mean an increase in capabilities. Almost anyone would see this is adequately armed for a patrol ship, less well armed than most corvettes, but it has the size and the price of high end frigates.

    If you follow the numbers, you can see the idea of multi-purpose vessels is a failure, and not necessarily better individually. Dramatic costs increases, ships riddled with faults when delivered, decades long procurement cycles, older ships remaining in service for lack of anything better, all these are the signs of obsolescence, except for the Navy in denial.

  5. November 30, 2009 1:40 pm

    Agree with Joe and Hudson. Also would add that those ships you cited were lost (the majority) because they acted alone without any support. Additionally the Navy is moving toward a Helicopter/USV(?) type operation when it comes to mines. Lastly what are you suggesting overall. A decrease in capabilities–spread over numerous hulls or the same capabilities over smaller ships?

    Every service has downsized to multi-mission type platforms where possible. The Navy is no exception. Remember the LPD-17 that you dislike is doing the job of three previous classes of amphibious ships. More hulls wouldn’t necessarily be more effective. Same applies to other classes—substituting Frigates for Destroyers isn’t the way to go. It just pushes up the number of ships and for what reason? The magical 600 number? No one has been able to justify why we need that many ships. Is it established on the two war strategy? Is it to have balanced fleets world wide? And no I don’t accept the presence deficit argument. We have UAVs, sats, and aircraft that perform to a higher standard than during the Reagan era age of the 600 ship fleet.

    So no, smaller ships is not the answer. More ships isn’t either. A robust capable fleet able to handle the spectrum of operations is.

  6. Joe permalink
    November 30, 2009 1:03 pm

    My quotation sources didn’t survive the cut-n-paste to this site. They were extracted from here.

  7. Joe permalink
    November 30, 2009 12:27 pm

    Not purely the subject of this posting but…

    The USS Cole was lost at a cost of $300M primarily for another reason that doesn’t get as much play in the pc-press: ROE that dictated a “get hit first then respond” strategy. As history shows, this ended up costing the lives of 17 US sailors.

    As Chief Petty Officer John Washak of the Cole said at the time, “That’s the rules of engagement: no shooting unless we’re shot at.” He added, “In the military, it’s like we’re trained to hesitate now. If somebody had seen something wrong and shot, he probably would have been court-martialed.

    And Petty Officer Jennifer Kudrick said that if the sentries had fired on the suicide craft “we would have gotten in more trouble for shooting two foreigners than losing seventeen American sailors.

    Take note of Al Qaeda’s asymmetrical techinques and prepare defensive strategies for them, but don’t ignore the other side of the equation when it comes to the tale of the USS Cole. They’re part and parcel to why we are seeing the proliferation of piracy attacks today.

  8. Hudson permalink
    November 30, 2009 11:58 am

    “Sea pirates operating in and off the Somalia coast also employ jihad-style tactics. They can use simple contact and antenna-moored mines to cause extensive damage to expensive surface and subsurface sea combatants.”

    This is over the top re Somali pirates. However, see excerpt below.

    From Winter 08 Naval War College Review:

    “What mine countermeasures does the Navy have to support Bangor, Everett, or Bremerton? Does the Navy have enough mine detection and clearance capabilities to quickly remove smart mines prior to the deployment of two billion dollar submarines or an eight billion dollar aircraft carrier?

    “Nevermind the challenge of clearing mines with the Littoral Combat Ship off a coast with hundreds of Anti-ship missiles pointed at it, what does the Littoral Combat Ship contribute to the port of Long Beach? How many Littoral Combat Ships are required for a Long Beach size MCM effort? It is an important question, because if the Navy has to commit its entire Pacific flotilla to homeland defense, the flotilla will not be available in forward combat theaters to support scouting efforts for the battle line.”

  9. November 30, 2009 11:09 am

    Better make a comment!

    Russian ships in the metal are awesome looking pieces of naval architecture.

    It is sad when you get up close and see the neglect. What ever your feelings towards Russia they are a proud people and deserve our respect for a whole host of reasons.

  10. November 30, 2009 11:06 am

    Mike makes me question my thoughts on this subject. Who knows? I could be wrong……

    (You keep on kicking the can Mike! :) )

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 30, 2009 10:49 am

    Solomon, you think this is tough? Check back at lunch time!

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 30, 2009 9:41 am

    What’d I say??

  13. November 30, 2009 9:32 am

    You really can’t help yourself! I’ll sit back and watch the wolves come after you on this one!


  1. A Navy Shaped for New Threats « New Wars

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