The Iowa Class Aircraft Carriers
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.
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 By the dawn of the First World War, the Dreadnought, or all-big gun battleship had superseded the predreadnought but in smaller numbers, with 35 built.
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.
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.
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.