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The Iowa Class Aircraft Carriers

June 8, 2010

Sea Hawk helicopter approaches the stern of the battleship USS Iowa BB-61 in 1985.

Recently Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned the continued viability of aircraft carriers in modern warfare with the following statement:

In World War II, both the American and British navies were surprised by the speed with which naval airpower made battleships obsolete.  Because of two decades of testing and operations, however, both were well prepared to shift to carrier operations.  We have to consider whether a similar revolution at sea is underway today.

Not surprisingly the Secretary was met by scorn from advocates of our shrinking number of large decks. The Navy went on the offensive to remind us how crucial aircraft carriers were to the fight in land-locked Afghanistan. The commander of the Carrier Strike Group Eight on board USS Dwight D. Eisenhower said recently:

“We are providing almost daily support to the Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.”

In  this, by their own words supporters of aircraft carriers have relegated the giant warships to a secondary naval mission, supporting ground troops in a land battle, the final stand of the last commissioned battleships on earth, the American Iowa class. This most famous class of naval ships in all history were almost immediately upon commissioning in 1943-1944 relegated to shore bombardment duties,  and after the war showing the flag to intimidate our enemies and support our friends. Now this same mission is the last refuge of the aircraft carrier.

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Historically you can track the demise of a major weapons system as they get larger, more expensive, and ironically more capable than 2-3 older types. Interestingly, just as a weapon reaches obsolescence, it possesses an air of invincibility. For “reasons of National Security” no sacrifice becomes too great, such as militaries today disposing of essential small warships or allowing battlefield troops to want equipment in order to maintain even a small number of capital vessels.

Nothing is more demonstrative of this than the rise and fall of the all-gun battleship in 20th Century war at sea. Prewar Britain, one of the primary practitioners of battleship warfare, entered the last century with over 50 modern vessels of the type, then the strongest battlefleet on earth. By the dawn of the First World War, the Dreadnought, or all-big gun battleship had superseded the predreadnought but in smaller numbers, with 35 built.

HMS Vanguard in 1946.

For reasons of economy ( a naval race and a major land war had nearly bankrupted the Empire), the awe inspiring Grand Fleet was reduced in scale in the 1920s, gradually to 15 which was considered the minimum to defend Great Britain’s global interests. Suspiciously this equates to the desire for a 15 ship carrier fleet during the Cold War years by the USN. During the Second World War, the battleship was bigger, badder, and pricier than ever, reaching new heights in speed, armor, and armament as well as weight. The RN during this period ordered only 10 new battleships, completed only 6 and one of these post-war. Because of the immense utility of the aircraft carrier, all battleship production ceased after the King George V class, other than a single fast unit HMS Vanguard, the largest and last of Britain’s stellar series of steel giants.

Vanguard was so much a white elephant, howbeit a magnificent one, expensive to operate, without a real purpose. The last surviving battleships were soon disposed of, their place taken by the fast aircraft carrier as Queen of the Seas. This thin-hulled, lightly armed vessel was once considered good only for scouting and spotting for the Big Guns, too vulnerable to match even a light cruiser, let alone a giant armored behemoth, the seemingly invincible and irreplaceable battleship.

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The American battleship production followed a similar pattern. Grand designs to create the world’s largest battlefleet was forgotten soon after she reached a high of 39 dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts in 1918. After the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, she contented herself with parity with Britain. After the battleship holiday of the 1920s and 1930s, she planned a remarkable 17 armored ships, including 5 of the mighty Montana class of 12×16 inch guns and weighing 60,000 tons, second in size and fighting power only to the Japanese Yamato class.

Of these which included 6 Treaty ships of 35,000 tons each, and 6 amazingly swift 45,000 ton Iowas (able to keep in step with the carriers), only 10 were completed with 2 of the latter canceled on the stocks. By the 1960s the Iowas alone remained in the US Navy Reserve Fleet. Periodically, throughout the Cold War one or more were taken into service, to provide surface warfare bombardment for the Army and Marines. All for Korea, the USS New Jersey during the Vietnam War, and again all 4 for the Cold War finale in the 1980s. Two lasted briefly into the 1990s, providing a defiant swan song for the last surviving battleships during the 1991 Gulf War.

USS Wisconsin BB-64 launches a Tomahawk missile cruise during Operation Desert

Ironically, it was the Iowas that may have ushered in a new concept of warfare, the missile armed arsenal ship. While the importance of its guns for supporting the troops was on the planners minds during their final deployments, seen also was the need to take advantage of a newer technology, the cruise missile. The placing of Tomahawk missiles in armored box launchers greatly extended the reach of the surface warship, returning to the battleship the power projection role seized from it by naval aircraft in the 1940s. During the 1991 War in Iraq, battleships Missouri and Wisconsin also introduced another technology, which was the use of RQ-2 Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicles from a surface warship during combat for scouting and spotting.

Itself superseded by the aircraft carrier, the Iowas may have survived long enough to see the table’s turned on its aerial menace. Though the battleships were soon discarded again because of costs, likely for the last time, their legacy lingers on with the new battleships, the Ticonderoga cruisers, and Burke destroyers, which can launch a great many missiles from vertical launchers (VLS), that have the same effect.

As the missiles become smarter, and newer UAVs designed with the advances from the last few decades in mind join the fleet, it could be the usefulness of the aircraft carriers will soon wain, as did their mighty forbears. If so they may be sent to the reserves, to be called back into service during times of crisis for use as sea bases. With the flattops increasingly relegated by the Navy to this niche role, they will go the way of the Iowas, while the New Battleships have their day in the sun.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. Summer Gardner permalink
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  9. Al L. permalink
    June 8, 2010 11:21 pm

    The fallacy is that the lead has to pass from a ship to a ship. The world is changing. The lead is passing from a ship ( the CVN) to a network. The CVN represented the last generations comprehensive solution to strategic control. It was necessary because linking assets together required a proximity of their human controllers. Such proximity is no longer necessary. The network will lead, the CVN and the little ships will all be nodes, and the assets will need to be distributed.
    The future frigate isn’t a hull, its an information system linking assets in 4 dimensions that give a commander(thats any commander from a regional one looking down to a local one looking up) the vision and control Nelson sought from his frigates and the ability not just to put a ship up against a ship, but to combine assets to achieve an effect.

  10. Reddy permalink
    June 8, 2010 6:25 pm

    Scott B: “This line of thinking is totally sterile.”

    Like heck it is. You couldn’t be more wrong, Scott B. Flat tops have been about as far from the tip of the spear as you can imagine, at least in US use. They’ve been parked-up airfields for bombing tribesman and peasants. For the amount of effort and hundreds of billions spent, I darn well want those babies to have won the war. That they cost so much and had such marginal impact is shocking. If the USN hadn’t taken such a disproportionate amount of money to play the ‘we have fast jets too!’ game, maybe there’d have been more concentration on organic COIN in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Ditto the USAF with its fighter mafia.

    If we’re so clever, why do we keep getting out butts handed to us by peasant armies? Because our career soldiers, our leadership, concentrates too much on big, hyper-expensive machines instead of soldiering and strategy. We’re trying to refight world war two every conflict we get into, and we lose every darn one. Less hyper-weapons, more boots, more smarts.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    June 8, 2010 5:40 pm

    ScottB wrote “the Burlesonian heresy, the Iowa-class aircraft carriers should be fighting pirates (off Somalia) rather than supporting troops in Afghanistan,”

    Interesting that the wars on land, which needs be handled by the army and air force, not the navy, seem tailored made for the deployment of flattops. At first, in the 1950s, this might be understandable for the need of nuclear deterrent. With that mission taken by SSBNs, now we apparently must have a conventional deterrent to go along with the very expensive nuclear one.

    If the USN built warships for the type of enemy it most often faced in at least the past 100 years, submarines and now Third World insurgent fleets, you would not need carriers, at least not very many. The British proved this in 1982, and their lessons, the only carrier war where someone was shooting back at ships in the last 70 years should not be ignored.

    Hudson wrote “The big decks can deliver far more firepower than any cruiser or destroyer.”

    But the battleship could deliver more firepower in a few hours what the carriers can in a week. The naval bombers introduced an early type of precision to war at sea, plus range the dreadnought guns could never match whether they were 16 or 18 inch cannons. Precision trumps performance in warfare. Same then same now.

    The Tomahawk isn’t as capable as the F/A-18 Super Hornet. It doesn’t need to be since it is more practical, and almost any ship can launch it but we have these supercruisers and destroyers, and submarines. You have a unmanned aerial vehicle with the accuracy of a JDAM or nearly so, which you don’t have to put a pilot at risk, or a $25 billion dollar battle group to deploy. Imminently efficient and cost-effective. These are the 21st century battleships.

  12. Scott B. permalink
    June 8, 2010 3:01 pm

    Reddy said : “What does that say about carriers?”

    Absolutely nothing.

    You could pick up every single weapon system that served in the conflicts / operations you’ve listed (planes, tanks, rifles,…) , and proclaim they were useless since *none of those conflicts were actually won by the USA* (which is yet another weak claim).

    This line of thinking is totally sterile.

  13. Reddy permalink
    June 8, 2010 2:38 pm

    All weapon systems are born, develop, and are then superceded. Carriers will be no different.

    In the past fifty years, carriers haven’t been used in anger bar attacks on weak nations without real navies or air forces. From Operation Linebacker to Operation El Dorado Canyon. From Korea to Afghanistan. And none of those conflicts were actually won by the USA or its allies. What does that say about carriers?

    The single other conflict to feature carriers was the Falklands, in which the combatants were more evenly matched. There, the British taskforce commander said that he was in constant fear of just a single bomb strike putting one of his carriers out of action, making it ‘game over’ for Britain. I’d take his word for it.

    Good luck parking a flat-top off the coast of a nation with anything more than RPG-7s, Mig-17s and T-55s to defend itself. Good luck keeping your exquisitely expensive carrier in a war with NBC weapons, hypersonic missiles or swarms of cheap Chinese Silkworms.

  14. Hudson permalink
    June 8, 2010 1:01 pm

    While it is true that the mantle of capital ship passed from the battleship to the carrier in WWII (although American BBs did fulfull their prime mission by directly engaging Japanese BBs at Gualdacanal and Leyte Gulf), it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the mantle has passed again from carriers to cruisers and destroyers. The big decks can deliver far more firepower than any cruiser or destroyer. The F-18 can carry more than one bomb or missile per sortie; and can surely re-fuel and re-arm faster than a Burke, for example, can reload its VLS tubes. Also, the fixed wings and helos deliver a wider range of ordnance.

    Both destroyers and carriers perform non-capital missions; the DDGs chase pirates, for example; and the big decks and amphibs. deliver humanitarian assistance, for which they are uniquely qualified.

  15. B.Smitty permalink
    June 8, 2010 12:17 pm

    If you want to add “.. from the Sea.” to the end, that’s fine. :)

  16. B.Smitty permalink
    June 8, 2010 12:01 pm

    I’ll stick with my (home-grown) mission for the Navy. :)

  17. Scott B. permalink
    June 8, 2010 11:53 am

    Heretic said : “You know … like it says explicitly in the Articles of Confederation (Nov. 15, 1777 )”

    1) It’s not clear how you can come up with the conclusion that *defending the sea lanes against pirates* is THE primary mission of the US Navy on the sole basis of the Article of Confederation you quote.

    2) What this article you quote says is this :

    “nor shall any State grant commissions to any ships or vessels of war […] unless such State be infested by pirates, in which case vessels of war may be fitted out for that occasion, and kept so long as the danger shall continue,[…]”

    Now, unless I missed something somewhere in the news of our beautiful world, I am not aware of any State of the Union being infested by pirates, but then again, maybe this is just me…

    3) In case you didn’t notice, the Article of Confederation you quote predates World War II by over a century, which might explain why it may not take into account the shift from sea control to power projection that took place in WW2.

    Now I assume you were born after the advent of WW2 and I have a hard time understanding why you continue to try and deny this shift ever existed and make it sound like nothing new happened since 1777…

  18. Scott B. permalink
    June 8, 2010 11:42 am

    Heretic said : “Sea Control. Defending the sea lanes against pirates.”

    So basically, in the Burlesonian heresy, the Iowa-class aircraft carriers should be fighting pirates (off Somalia) rather than supporting troops in Afghanistan, since the former is supposed to be the primary mission and the latter merely *a* secondary mission.

    Oh well…

  19. Heretic permalink
    June 8, 2010 10:53 am

    What is the primary naval mission supposed to be then ?

    Sea Control.
    Defending the sea lanes against pirates.
    You know … like it says explicitly in the Articles of Confederation (Nov. 15, 1777 )

    No State shall engage in any war without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled, unless such State be actually invaded by enemies, or shall have received certain advice of a resolution being formed by some nation of Indians to invade such State, and the danger is so imminent as not to admit of a delay till the United States in Congress assembled can be consulted; nor shall any State grant commissions to any ships or vessels of war, nor letters of marque or reprisal, except it be after a declaration of war by the United States in Congress assembled, and then only against the Kingdom or State and the subjects thereof, against which war has been so declared, and under such regulations as shall be established by the United States in Congress assembled, unless such State be infested by pirates, in which case vessels of war may be fitted out for that occasion, and kept so long as the danger shall continue, or until the United States in Congress assembled shall determine otherwise.

    Come on … give us a hard one.

  20. B.Smitty permalink
    June 8, 2010 10:02 am

    Scott B said, “What is the primary naval mission supposed to be then ?

    The primary mission of the Navy (and every other service), is to protect the U.S., its people and our interests.

  21. Scott B. permalink
    June 8, 2010 9:07 am

    B. Smitty said : “I see you have given up on the “wars we are fighting today” slogan. Inconvenient that carrier airpower is the primary naval contribution to those conflicts.. ;)”

    Let’s assume that supporting boots on the ground in the “wars we are fighting today” is a secondary naval mission as Mike suggests.

    What is the primary naval mission supposed to be then ?

  22. Scott B. permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:57 am

    Mike Burleson said : “Now this same mission [shore bombardment duties] is the last refuge of the aircraft carrier.”

    Historically, this is NOT true. Consider this : being a land-locked country, Afghanistan doesn’t lend itself to the kind of shore bombardment duties you’re talking about. ;-))

    At a more fundamental level, this kind of comments that was made popular by such people as the current Under SECNAV, clearly shows that these people fail to understand the shift in Western navies that took place during WW2.

    This shift is explained by Dr Friedman’s :

    “Before World War II, the objective of most naval tactics was the destruction of warships or simply ships. Command of the sea was sought in order to permit the free movement of men and materiel between ports in friendly hands, and in order to blockade an enemy. Although warships might shell enemy positions, it was recognized that the ability of ships to attack land targets was at best limited; the ability of sea powers to attack land powers was considered insignificant. […]

    Matters were very different in World War II. Carrier aircraft could strike deep inland, against traditional land as well as naval targets. […] In fact, as Axis sea power faded in 1944-45, Britain and the United States turned more and more to the use of their navies for the projection de force against the land masses of their enemies : more and more the principal naval target was on land.” (Modern Warship Design and Development, page 25)

    Why is it that such people as the current Under SECNAV continue to ignore this fundamental shift that took place in WW2 ? I don’t know, but I can speculate that this [gross] ignorance is one the reasons that explain the suicidal Sea Blindness of the current administration.

  23. B.Smitty permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:53 am

    Mike B said, “In this, by their own words supporters of aircraft carriers have relegated the giant warships to a secondary naval mission, supporting ground troops in a land battle, the final stand of the last commissioned battleships on earth, the American Iowa class.

    I see you have given up on the “wars we are fighting today” slogan. Inconvenient that carrier airpower is the primary naval contribution to those conflicts.. ;)

  24. Scott B. permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:33 am

    Mike Burleson said : “This most famous class of naval ships in all history [the Iowa-class battleships] were almost immediately upon commissioning in 1943-1944 relegated to shore bombardment duties”

    Historically, this is NOT true.

    Though the Iowas accomplished almost none of the tasks for which they had been designed in WW2, they made their most important to the victory over Japan by guarding the flat-tops, which, by then, had become the dominant type.

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