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The Washington Naval Treaty of 2012 Pt 1

March 8, 2010

Battleships Nelson and Rodney are fondly remembered as "the Cherrytree Class" (they were cut down by Washington!). Author Emoscopes via Wikipedia Commons

“Well, this one is hard to believe. The Russian Navy is planning to have a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier (CVN) in service by 2020. Also, they’re projecting a class totaling three to six 60,ooo ton displacement CVNs. Given the moribund nature of the Russian economy and the abject condition of the Russian shipbuilding industry then this seems more akin to fantasy than reality.”

D.E. Reddick

Hello, I am from the Navy and I am a Spendaholic.

When are the major navies of the World, including Britain, China, India, Russia, and the USA going to admit they have a problem and stop building ships they can’t afford, and really do not need? These vessels of monolithic price, absorbing sparse resources have little purpose other than to compete with one another, to raise international tensions, and might even be at risk from smaller, less cheaper weapons. In this they remind us of the battleships of 100 years ago which initially appeared invincible and indispensable but were mostly gone by as soon as the mid 20th Century.

All this budget blindness seems familiar, taking us back some 90 years. After ruinous land wars in which the old Colonial Empires of Europe teetered on bankruptcy, some like Germany and Russia having completely collapsed, amazingly a renewed naval arms race began much like the earlier one that started World War 1. America was then feeling its oats as a new superpower, while Japan very much was a Great Power wannabe. Each of the latter had started major battleship construction programs pre-war and now restarted their bid to replace the UK as Queen of the Seas.

The mighty British Lion, down but not out, responded in kind, drawing up even more impressive battleships and battlecruisers, designed from the lessons of the recent conflict. It was mostly for bluff, since the Empire was already heavily indebted to America who she sought to out-build (reminding us of the USA and China today). Fortunately for the world, the bluff worked, and it was the Americans who started the process for naval reductions that prevented a renewed world war.

South Dakota BB-49, cancelled in 1922.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 saw the greatest destruction of warships in all history, except for peaceful reasons instead of warfare. It placed a tonnage limit on the major navies, especially in terms of battleship tons and limited the size of gun caliber. Battleships could only be replaced after they reached an age of 20 years, with a few exceptions, such as Britain allowed to build 2×16 inch armed ships (the above HMS Nelson class) as with American and Japanese vessels so armed. Aircraft carriers were recognized as prime assets of the fleet even though only a handful of them were operational and the USN possessed only a single small example. The ongoing confused design of cruisers was rectified by limiting them to 10,000 tons with of gun armament up to 8 inches.

Time for Another Conference

As with the Washington Treaty of 90 years ago, the US and UK would have much to gain from a modern agreement in this new century. It would halt the practice of naval shipbuilding creating successive classes of ships which are ever larger, fewer in number, and technically faulty when delivered. For example, the destroyer of 1921 averaged about 1000 tons in weight, or about the size of a corvette in 2010. In contrast, the Royal Navy and USA construct ships ranging from 7000-9500 tons, or about the size of a large cruiser from the previous era. Also, the 33,000 ton carriers of the American Lexington class, considered huge for the times would be dwarfed today by the Nimitz class supercarrier.

This would not be a problem except there has been few if any orders for vessels to replace the old “tin cans”, the small warships in numbers for the essential roles of sea control, everyday patrolling, and nautical policing. The ongoing neglect of the flotilla is stark, seeing these are the kind of vessels most in demand to face low tech threats, especially in the Middle East. Their lack has allowed a tide of piracy and smuggling to rise on the high seas, portending anarchy, while the Great Powers are distracted by traditional Big Wars and peer competition.

As in 1922, America has all the cards on her side since about 1991 she has been in a naval race with herself. Really, compared to the rest of the world, there is no rival with a like fleet, nor are there any projected for the foreseeable future. No nation has as many nuclear submarines. No other navy deploys a fully serviceable large deck compared to any one of her 11 supercarriers. Neither are there any destroyers in comparable numbers of her mighty DDG-51 Burke class, 62 built or building, and the 22 Ticonderoga class Aegis cruisers. Only a handful of ships are even technically comparable and these possessed by our close allies.

Tomorrow-Proposals for a New Naval Treaty

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Mczosch permalink
    March 9, 2010 4:35 am

    While we are at historical analogies… one less obvious coming to my mind is the situation in England in the first half of the 17th century.

    Under James I. and Charles I., the english Navy Royal (yes, in that order!) had many large battleships, on top the Prince Royal of 1610 and the Sovereign of the Seas of 1637. Small warships to protect english trade in the Med against barbaresque corsairs where lacking, as well as small shallow draft vessels for inshore operations. The latter a lack culminating in the disastrous expedition under Buckingham to break the french siege of La Rochelle in 1627.

    The large ships where not used until the first Anglo-Dutch war.

    N.A.M. Rodger in his book “Safeguard of the seas” gives a very comprehensive account on this.

    To sum it up:
    – no small, low cost ships for everyday inshore work, cruising and raiding
    – many large, high-tech vessels not seeing one engagement against peers
    – no money in treasure to build the first for the matter of high cost of the latter

    Reminds you on something?

  2. elgatoso permalink
    March 8, 2010 11:44 pm

    Is going nuclear,I mean>
    The blog is DTI in avweek. And Mike,read David vs Goliath

  3. elgatoso permalink
    March 8, 2010 9:15 pm

    I read somewhere that after the actual class of subs ,Japan is gouing nuclear.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 8, 2010 4:11 pm

    And Chuck, I consider LCS as pretty as a Luxury Cruise Ship!

  5. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 8, 2010 4:07 pm

    There is a stark contrast between the service of the ugly ducklings Rodney and Nelson and the good looking Hood.

    Another pretty face, Repulse, was also a disaster, but Renown did pretty well though.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 8, 2010 3:39 pm

    Douglas, no argument about the Lexington’s tonnage, but America “lied” about it?

    Concerning whether the Treaty averted war, that is debatable except it most certainly did delay a naval arms race of the kind that precipitated the last war. That much is certain.

    James said “it does occur to me that it often takes some kind of exernal factor out of their control to sharpen the minds of planners”

    My point exactly. Otherwise it must be war in order to change the admirals minds, and the subsequent crashing of many ships and the loss of their precious crew. But a Treaty would certainly be impetus without bloodshed. Not perfect, as that document assuredly wasn’t, but it couldn’t hurt and might help.

    Joe wrote “Besides, given our fiscal hallucinations, foreign powers might be more inclined to simply sit back and wait for the monetary implosion one could say will eventually occur here”

    You are probably right here. It would be the wise course. I am positive that naval bankruptcy is in our future unless we reign in ship costs.

  7. James Daly permalink
    March 8, 2010 3:18 pm

    Leaving the issue of Treaties to one side, it does occur to me that it often takes some kind of exernal factor out of their control to sharpen the minds of planners, whereas with a blank canvas things seem at a loss.

    History is full of examples of how neccesity is the mother of invention. Longitude for one. And Harrison spent years struggling to get his chronometers accepted, as many favoured a solution using the stars. Their opposition only made him perfect his sea clocks. Didn’t matter that it was the ‘wrong kind’ of solution – it worked.

    Would a Treaty force planners to raise their game?

  8. March 8, 2010 2:14 pm

    Also Mike ,
    Lexington and Saratoga were listed at 33,000 to comply with the treaty but the true tonnage was over 40,000.

  9. March 8, 2010 2:11 pm

    PS Mike,
    The Washington Naval Treaty did not delay war .Japan opted out of the London Agreement later on. Germany didn’t begin to rearm until Hitler came to power in 1933 and he negotiated a naval agreement to expand the German Navy with Great Britain in 1935 .
    Of the Axis only Italy did not over expand past treaty limits but the modernized there battleships and expanded their submarine arm.
    Also keep in mind Russia was not part of any of this but was an aggressor nation against Poland ,Finland and the Baltic States and had the largest military on earth until the U.S. entered the war and expanded like crazy from 1941-1945.

  10. March 8, 2010 2:01 pm


    My point is that with other countries that are not the” Core US Allies”are expanding and the U.S . countering Piracy off of Africa it may not be to the U.S.’s best interest to limit our fleet size and or tonnage .
    I believe the US should be building a fleet to operate in all areas Blue Ocean ,Littorals (Green Ocean) and should be spending more wisely,but this doesn’t mean we should limit fleet size at a time when threats are expanding and not decreasing.
    I am not a LCS or even a Ford Class CV fan.WE should be designing new Frigates ,Corvettes, MCM’s and PC ‘s to help counter these threats as well as more cost effective Light Helicopter Carriers , and diesel subs to operate in these theaters. But limits only aid the enemy and future enemy at the present time.

  11. Joe permalink
    March 8, 2010 12:43 pm

    If we’re comparing the present to the past, I’d say it’s more likely the situation of today is more akin to the first decade of the 1900’s as opposed to 1922.

    A W.N.C., proposed now, would be received in nations like China, Russia, India, et al, like it would have been received in Germany in the first decade of the 1900’s, just after the German Navy Laws began passing in 1898, which laid the groundwork for the German High Seas Fleet and Germany had shown itself to be the economic equal of Great Britain.

    That is to say, a conference then would have looked to Germans like an attempt to forever bottle up their naval ambitions (and the world stature that was presumed to go with it) behind a wall of words and lock in British superiority just as it could be spun that a 2012 WNC would be attempting to lock in the West’s (read: U.S.) numerical/firepower superiority and prevent any challengers to the “throne” of Western (read: American) power.

    Besides, given our fiscal hallucinations, foreign powers might be more inclined to simply sit back and wait for the monetary implosion one could say will eventually occur here. All things being equal, the world could feel that that event will give them “better terms” regarding American power projection than would a new Washington Naval Treaty drawn up by the best lawyers money can buy.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 8, 2010 8:59 am

    James, as you say, it was all about the looks, even then, as they were dubbed “Nelsol and Rodnol” because they resembled oil tankers of the day. Like you, I admire their stellar service and the Royal Navy considered them a match for modern Axis battleships save for speed. They were probably the best armored British ships ever, and I especially admire the “water protection” the class carried which was expected to blunt the force of a shell against their hulls.

  13. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 8, 2010 8:51 am

    Douglas asked “And who does this benifit?”

    I see it benefiting the USA and Britain the most, as I don’t see great Power conflict on the high seas as the most important requirement right now. We are more at risk from rogue states and terrorist groups who might seek to acquire, maybe have acquired nuclear weapons. They also want to overthrow Western type governments or those friendly to the West, replacing them with radical regimes which exploit jihad and terror overseas.

    Great Power conflict then becomes an unnecessary distraction, while the vultures loom over the carcases of the industrial empires. Nothing can raise tensions so much or have induced costly arms races in the past century like naval armaments. I think its past time we end petty squabbles over who has the most or best dreadnoughts, in this era meaning large carriers, nuke subs, and missile destroyers.

    I don’t recall the USA “lying” over the Lexingtons’ tonnage, but I remember that about the future Axis powers. The Treaty wasn’t perfect by far, but it did delay war for a while, and also importantly, brought some needed sanity in warship design.

  14. James Daly permalink
    March 8, 2010 8:38 am

    The funny thing about Nelson and Rodney is that you can never read anything about them without seeing some kind of comment about what they looked like. OK so they hardly conformed to what people expected battleships to look like, but they both gave pretty sterling service. Factors such as the Washington Treaty do force planners to forget about trivial concerns such as looks, in favour of utility and cost. Necessity the mother of invention?

  15. March 8, 2010 7:36 am

    The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was a shame it only succeeded in reducing the size of navies.Even the US lied about the displacement of the Lexington Class CV’s so they did not have to scrap them.Japan constantly lied about displacement of there cruisers ,carriers and battleships.Even the Germans supposedly bound by the 1919 Armistice and treaty lied about the size of there pocket battleships at 10,000 tonnes they were 13,00o tonnes

    If you want to save money on naval construction I understand that ,but who does this help and remember what Ronald Reagan said”Trust but verify”. How do you verify tonnage of warships?
    And who does this benifit? The Russians,Chinese and Indians all are embarking on ambitious ship building programs including Aircraft Carriers. The US is saying it wants to modestly expand to 313 ships ,but weather we can remains to be seen.The UK ,France ,Spain and Italy all are facing economic issues and for economic reasons may want to limit spending,but given Russian expansion and Chinese expansion and the Piracy War off of Africa in the Indian Ocean the last 2 years you have to ask if it makes sense or is in the US and European counties best strategic interest to do so.

  16. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 8, 2010 7:35 am

    Marcase, I completely agree with everything you wrote!

  17. Marcase permalink
    March 8, 2010 6:57 am

    The USN always considered anti-piracy operations, presence and other maritime escort/patrols as the US Coast Guards bailywick, and didn’t want to be concernced (bothered!) with such mundane roles.
    Unless the USN is willing to actually get down and dirty and into the fight, the USCG will be the only ‘littoral’ force at hand to do Real World operations, and at reduced readiness at that, as the USCG is grossly underfunded for the missions it is tasked.

    Project Deepwater was great on paper, but the troubles fielding the planned UAVs, nevermind getting USCG Bertholf up to specs, are tasking the budget and thus hampering operations.

    C’mon Navy, join in!


  1. links for 2010-03-08 « Budget Insight

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