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Back to the Battleship Pt 2

December 1, 2009

French Helicopter Carrier Mistral, of a type sought by the Russian Navy. Author NetMarine and Wikipedia.

Russia’s Battleship Search

Today we see rising concern in the Black Sea, over a planned Franco-Russian deal for a 20,000 ton amphibious ship based on the Mistral. While the vessel has all the appearance of an aircraft carrier, navalists will insist vehemently it is not, pointing out its inability to launch fixed wing aircraft, though it does carry 14 helicopters and probably could load a Harrier V/STOL plane in a pinch. Still, this presumed inability hasn’t dampened the fears of Russia’s neighbors and historical antagonists, as we see the headlines below:

The overwhelming firepower of a US Navy supercarrier has been best served in major crisis or war, though the Navy will argue that they are unmatched in peacetime for gunboat diplomacy and disaster relief. Despite the prohibitive costs of a 100,000 ton “gunboat”, we might offer up another candidate in the guided missile destroyer, typified by the Arleigh Burke class. Such vessels are as important as the carrier in major conflicts, able to perform many of the same roles such as land attack with cruise missiles, and air defense of the fleet with its Aegis Combat radar and missiles. Even more crucial of late in the minds of politicians has been the Ballistic Missile Defense role, which these vessels have been able to perform in a series of dramatic tests, surpassing the decades long quest to perfect the same type system on land.

The renewed importance of the non-aviation surface combatant in modern warfare can be also glimpsed in Russian plans to reactivate two ex-Soviet “battlewagons”, according to Jane’s:

The Russian Federation Navy (RFN) is to reactivate two laid-up Kirov-class (Project 1144) battle cruisers, according to statements attributed by Russian media to the country’s deputy defence minister…The 24,300-ton ships were commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1984 and 1988, the second and third vessels in a class that eventually numbered four.

Israel’s Submersible Dreadnoughts

An apt description for the word “dreadnought” would also apply to the modern nuclear attack submarine. Referring to its ability to stay underwater for many months, dive deeper, and travel faster than most surface warships, it has very little to fear in this age where anti-submarine planes and ships are far fewer than the giant fleets that finally destroyed Hitler’s U-boat arm in the last great war at sea. Now its less capable conventional cousin has become a force to be reckoned with, as production of the Russian Kilos, Chinese Songs, Scorpenes, Type 212s, and Type 214s, ect is ongoing for numerous fleets, easily outdistancing in quantity the harder to build and more costly nuclear boats. The international press seems very interested in 1600 ton German-built submarines for Israel, for instance:

It has three German-made Dolphin submarines and is buying two more. They can be equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles which analysts say could be stationed off the coast of Iran. Israel says Iran, despite its denials, is trying to acquire atomic weapons. It has never confirmed its Dolphin fleet has nuclear capabilities, but senior officials acknowledge that commanders are fast at work devising a strike plan in case diplomacy fails.

With new weapons, the new U-boats are yet a force to be reckoned with, and even Third World navies so armed must not be ignored by superpowers, only to their peril.

The New Battleships

Finally, we see the return of the corvette in the designs of naval planners. The American Littoral combat ship (LCS) is an attempt at this concept, however overweight and underarmed. European and Asian corvettes showcase a better balance of armament on a low cost hull platform, along with adequate seakeeping important for ocean travel. Such craft displace the older fast attack missile craft (FAC) seen vulnerable to airpower, as well as conventional frigates which themselves are approaching cruiser/destroyer status in armament and costs. These small but highly capable warcraft might be the antidote to shrinking Western fleets which are grasping with numerous threats and aging force structures.

Ultimately a true battleship is one which performs a set series of functions which is adequate for a Navy’s needs. With Russia, it may be a small multi-purpose carrier, with Israel a submarine. With the US Navy, a cruise missile firing Aegis warship can be seen as its capital vessel. For global navies, many small corvettes can guard chokepoints and commercial sea ports against the many small lethal threats still out there, allowing the Big Ships a choice of more urgent targets.

We see a trend with modern threats with many enemies of the warship, such as precision MIRV warheads on anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic cruise missiles, stealthy aircraft, naval mines, supercavitating torpedoes, even suicide boats. So there is a need for varied number of counter-measures, hence the requirement for many new vessels that carry the mantle of “battleship”, rather than a single armored behemoth of the same title and description.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    December 2, 2009 1:12 am

    I don’t know that it qualifies as a true SLEP, but a retired Perry frigate to be given to Pakistan will undergo a $65 million facelift prior to its transfer. LINK

    And “if” and a “would”…If this figure does represent a working SLEP, would we be wise to remake the Perry fleet, given the insane procurement environment we find ourselves in? Or, instead, let them go and salute their service?

  2. CBD permalink
    December 1, 2009 8:30 pm

    That’s why I like the idea of “major” and “minor combatant” (as well as type-roles) for descriptors, they allow some confusion at the margins but tend to avoid the conflation of title and role…and you can keep the rest of the bottle.

    You’re right about the Perry-class, my error. The vessels were bloated beyond their original configuration and had limited room for expansion (and had features cut to make costs and weight), but, true, the missiles were not why (just read up and corrected my erroneous memory).

    I agree about purchasing the rights for another ship design. I like the Formidable class, but it seems to lack room for Mk41 VLS. The F100s and De Zeven Provincien better fit the US armament pattern (Mk. 41, Harpoon, helicopter, 5″ main gun, etc)…but are much larger than the Perry class (~6,000t full vs. 4,200t full), although still much less than the Burkes (>9,000t full for Flt IIa). These are needed to supplement the Burkes, $700M for an LCS-1 vs $1bn for an F100 is not hard to figure.

    I think that the LCS is unfortunately here to stay. The LCS-1 is, IMHO, useless (no room for expansion, already have space problems, problems with weapons configurations, etc.). LCS-2 may have some capability as a multirole mothership (due to extra internal space and the large landing pad), but has the obvious problems with an aluminum hull, institutional resistance…and that excess engine power…but it seems to be not a great ship to operate independently. IF the cost could be brought down to half of what it is for the LCS-2 it might be worth it to buy more than a handful…

    Agreed. Sounds reasonable. The age of capital ships has surely passed thanks to mines, near-silent SSKs/SSPs, long-ranged cruise missiles and the like. Too much in one basket…it’s why I like the SSGN as a means of retaliatory strike (lots of conventional capacity, hard to find early in the targeting loop and long-ranged patrol capability), in spite of the cost.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 1, 2009 4:03 pm

    It is equally hard to place the title “capital ship” on a particular vessel. Most would immediately think of the nuclear supercarrier as America’s capital ship, even though it spends most of its time attacking land targets, a secondary mission the gun battleships were relegated to in the last World War.

    Then there is the nuclear attack submarine, arguably unchallenged at sea due to its diving ability and high speeds of surface ships. other than against aircraft and other subs, this vessel has little to fear, and as with the Israeli Dolfin SSKs, it can’t perform commerce escort or support amphibious operations.

    My theory then for the mantle of capital ship, it must be shared among the surface warship and submarine. We may never see another singular warship worthy to hold the classification of BB, battleship, dreadnought, ect. It is now a combined fleet, a team effort, which the naval aviators must get used to.

  4. Hudson permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:29 pm


    Excellent essay on battleship/ship-of-the-line, et al. The reason many of us dislike the conflation of smaller ships to the status of battleship, to make a point about the increse in cost, size and diminishing numbers of destroyers and cruisers and frigates (although the Burkes will continue to multiply), is the great historical resonance of the term “battleship,” which until recently, in the USN, was in actual service. It just doesn’t sound right to call a destroyer, no matter how large and costly, as the Zumwalts are, a BB. The men who sailed on the Wisconsin’s farewell voyage kissed her aged teak decks when they came aboard.

    One nit. The Perry’s weren’t “bloated” in their missile armament as built. They were simply built as a complete modern frigate should be, with the capability to engage land, air and under water targets. When the missile arm was removed they were indeed “neutered,” as you said. They could and should be replaced by some off-the-shelf foreign design to be built at home. Congress should be pressured to force the Navy to do this instead of replacing a blue water frigate with an LCS, in my view.

  5. Joe permalink
    December 1, 2009 12:58 pm


    You are right – there is no perfect way to tidily sum everything up when it comes to ship types. As you touch on, even battleship terminology can get tortured. If we could snap our fingers and replicate these ships as originally constructed, the singleton HMS Dreadnought bears little resemblance in size or power to a ship that followed in its “type” footsteps…the dreadnought USS Iowa…yet both are joined at the hip in classification terminology. Please pass the Jim Beam, if you would…

  6. CBD permalink
    December 1, 2009 12:24 pm

    Perhaps rather than “battleship” the comparison might be to a “ship-of-the-line.”

    Few people identify a Burke destroyer as a “cruiser” type vessel because of the change in meaning. While “cruiser” historically meant a ship that could/would operate independent of the main “line” of the fleet, as a shipping raider or means of showing the flag, as the Burke now does. Often, these “cruisers” were classed as frigates, until the term ‘cruiser’ came to refer to a distinct class of vessels.

    Similarly, the “ship-of-the-line” was the biggest, heaviest, best-armed type of vessel available (in the 17th to 19th centuries). The other term for these vessels was “line-of-battle ship“, the last part of that phrase being the origin for the term battleship.

    So, while post-dreadnought we identified a “battleship” as something like the Yamamoto, Bismarck or Iowa , the first “battleships” were (as Joe stated), heavily armored (Ironclad), heavily armed vessels (classed as frigates) that could resist the enemy shots and fire back to powerful effect. The HMS Dreadnought gave us a specific model that the later ships would follow on, the class of vessels termed ‘Battleships.’

    Following the original meaning, the Burkes and Ticonderogas in USN forces simply are the modern “ships-of-the-line,” the very “battleships” that we use to bombard our enemy. But so are the Nimitz-class CVNs and the SSNs and SSGNs.

    The confusion of a title/classification (‘Battleship’) with the stated role of the vessel (“battleship”) seems to be the main issue most people have with Mike’s concept of an SSK, LHD or LCS “battleship.” Mike has clearly tried to address this in his last line by making the direct comparison between the two.

    For Israel, the Dolphin-class subs are their ships of the line. With a small navy, they will most likely strike at foreign shores with these submarines. The Sa’ar-series missile boats are to prevent enemy vessels from doing the same to Israel, but are pointedly equipped with only limited land-attack capabilities. Thus, to bombard their enemies, the Israeli Navy will use what they have, the Dolphins.

    Personally, I disagree with the idea of Influence Squadrons or LCSes or Corvettes as the “ship-of-the-line.” I think that they are our light patrols, our cruisers of foreign coasts, our flag bearers. Like the old, small frigates that once cruised the seas in the name of the British Empire, enforcing the rule of the Crown, these small vessels will enhance the ability of the USN to cover its many obligations around the world.

    I don’t see these vessels as a replacement for the DDGs or CVNs, our modern ships of the line and, thus, our “battleships.” If we ever are to confront an enemy fleet again, it will be these ships that form our modern battle line. Because of the expense and limited production rate of these vessels, however, we can not afford to have a fleet solely constructed of exquisite (supremely capable) capital ships.

    We must have some means of cruising friendly and enemy waters, that, I believe, will come from these small craft. The chance to replace the Perry-class frigates came and left, if I could, I would replace them with a ship that could conduct the foreign visits, shows of flag and general patrol duties. We never did.

    In this climate, we don’t have the time to construct a decent replacement (even the Perry-class was meant for this role and ended up bloated by missile systems that would later be removed, neutering the effectiveness of these ships).

    The smaller craft are all that we have left and modern technology has favored us with the means (PGMs, satellite communications, powerful radars and UAVs) of making these smaller craft capable of filling in for their more heavily armed fore-bearers at a price (unit costs and manpower) that we can still afford.

  7. D. E. Reddick permalink
    December 1, 2009 12:23 pm

    Given that Mike provided a picture of FS Mistral to accompany the start of this thread, then here’s a very interesting item featuring that helicopter carrier with a Russian Kamov Ka-52 ‘Alligator’ attack helo on her flight deck.

    The link which follows (at bottom) opens the third page of a thread regarding the Mistral at Go down to posting # 38 to read about Russian helos operating aboard the Mistral. The single picture portrays some of the many thousands of words worth of concern that are being expressed by the neighbors of Russia.

    French Ship Mistral Hosts Russian Naval Aviation

    (Source: French Navy; issued Nov. 30, 2009)

    (Issued in French only; unofficial translation by

    “This day will mark history.” These are the words uttered on November 27, 2009 by the Director General and Chief Designer of the Kamov firm, Mr Sergei Viktorovich Mikheyev, at the first landing of the Russian Ka-52 combat helicopter aboard a helicopter carrier. In this case, the ship was the French Navy’s Bâtiment de Projection et Commandement (BPC) Mistral.

  8. Joe permalink
    December 1, 2009 11:53 am

    It’s easy to make the case (as it’s true) that missile technology gives simpler, modern ships a much greater reach than preeminent capital ships of the naval past had with their mighty guns.

    But reach alone doesn’t make a corvette into a battleship. After all, some say that the battleship got it’s modern concept launch in 1855 by usage of French ironclad floating batteries in the Crimean War that pounded Russian positions at Kinburn at very close range.

    We go thru our daily lives comparing A to B – it’s human nature. After all, if you had a car from the Fast and the Furious movies you’d be accurate in saying “Chevy Corvette-like 0-60 times”. But to put a naval corvette and battleship on the same rhetorical level makes me compare A (the 1,000 ton corvette so often mentioned here) to B (the 72,000 ton+ IJN Yamato) and go “Huh, I don’t see the family resemblance?”.

  9. Matthew S. permalink
    December 1, 2009 10:34 am

    I thought you got over using the word battleship to describe LHDs, destroyers, cruisers, frigates, carriers, corvettes and submarines. The only ships on Earth that could even fall in the battleship category are the Kirov class battle cruisers.

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