Well, that was interesting. Starting with the Zumwalt and the AGS, we managed to meander into the battleship issue! So, with that background, here's a timely post about battleships but not the way you think.
After the LCS, one of the most contentious naval questions is the fate of the battleships. Critics call them outdated dinosaurs that are too expensive to operate. Proponents see them as mammothly powerful vessels, unmatched in today’s world. Well, we’re not going to debate that. The issue has been decided, for better or worse. Instead, we’re going to look at what lessons can be gleaned from the battleship question and actions that were taken.
Once WWII began, it was fairly quickly realized that the heyday of the battleship was over. Initial, fairly easy, sinkings of various battleships, both Axis and Allied, made clear that the battleship no longer ruled the waves. Aircraft and the aircraft carrier were the new masters of naval combat with a strong nod to submarines. Despite this early realization, the
continued to build battleships through the end of the war and had plans
to evolve the type even further with the US class.
Why? If the battleship was seen
to be no longer supreme, why would we continue to build new ones and plan for
even more powerful versions? Why didn’t
we simply stop building battleships when the ones that were already started
were completed? Wouldn’t that have been
the logical thing to do? This brings us
to the first lesson. Montana
The first lesson is that even if the battleship was no longer ruler of the waves, it still had immense combat capability. In WWII, its guns absolutely pulverized enemy shore positions. Just as impressively, its 20x 5” guns, 80x 40 mm Bofors guns, and 49x 20 mm Oerlikon guns constituted the Aegis AAW system of the time. The battleship also possessed an anti-ship capability that could sink any opposing vessel. All this capability was housed in a ship that was the most heavily protected and armored ever built. To this day, battleships possess more destructive capability and better protection than anything now afloat. The generalized lesson is that just because a platform or system may no longer be the foremost weapon system in one’s inventory, that is not a reason to discard it. A secondary system can still provide immensely valuable service. The Navy in WWII recognized this and not only continued to build battleships but had embarked on even newer designs when the war ended.
Contrast the Navy’s treatment of battleships in WWII with their treatment of the Spruance class. Because the Spruance/NTU (New Threat Upgrade) was seen as an inferior technology (even though, arguably, it was superior to Aegis when the latter was first introduced), the Navy not only retired the Spruance class but, literally, sank them all. Of course, the real reason they sank the Spruance class was because it represented a threat to the Navy’s desired funding of the Aegis program. This leads us to the second lesson.
The second lesson is that no system is a threat to another’s funding if that other system is worthwhile. The battleship was not a threat to carrier funding in WWII. Quite the opposite. We built as many as we could of both. The battleship and the carrier complemented each other. A carrier group with battleship support was a truly powerful group. Today, with China and Russia building new submarine forces and lesser countries investing in SSK’s, we could sure use the Spruance class, couldn’t we, especially given the failings of the LCS which was supposed to provide ASW but is woefully inadequate for the role.
Let’s move on to the post-WWII treatment of the battleships. Unlike so many ships that were summarily disposed of at the end of the war, the battleships were retained. The Navy, remembering the value and combat power of the battleship made sure to keep the battleships in reserve. What do we do today? We’ve retired supercarriers, LHA’s, Perrys, Spruances, etc. with none of them kept in reserve. As documented in a previous post, our reserve warship fleet is about a half dozen vessels.
What ultimately happened to the battleships? They were brought back multiple times when war occurred, as it inevitably does. This brings us to the third lesson.
|Lots To Teach Us|
The third lesson is that war always comes and one can never have enough combat power when it does. Ships (and aircraft) that can no longer serve on an active basis but still possess credible combat power need to be kept in reserve. They will be needed. It’s just a matter of when. When both side’s first line assets are mutually destroyed, that second line asset will look awfully good.
How did the battleships perform when they were brought back from retirement and thrown into combat? In a word, stunningly. The battleship’s 16” guns provided devastating firepower wherever they were used. This brings us to the fourth lesson.
The fourth lesson is that devastating firepower has a tactical and strategic value all its own. Mammoth area explosives have a way of solving many tactical problems that would otherwise cost US lives. This kind of firepower also has a strategic impact. As the story goes, removal of the battleships from the firing line was a pre-condition from the North Vietnamese for peace talks during the Vietnam war. Similarly, the Soviets were said to have feared our battleships more than our carriers.
We have forgotten this lesson in our quest for zero-casualty combat and the subsequent movement towards smaller, more precise firepower. There’s certainly a place for small, precision weapons but, equally, or more, there’s a place for massive, devastating firepower. Once high end war comes and US soldiers begin dying in large numbers, we’re going to quickly stop worrying about chipping the paint off someone’s shrine that a sniper is hiding behind and we’re going to frantically start looking for area-wide, high explosive firepower. We’ll relearn how to wage war and then we’ll remember why the battleship existed.
Did the battleship’s contributions go beyond war? Yes. Throughout their service lives, our allies constantly requested the presence of a
battleship to help settle unstable regions. There is no better deterrence than a
battleship sitting off some potential hotspot.
This brings us to the fifth lesson. US
The fifth lesson is that deterrence does not work because of good wishes, peaceful gestures, or appeasement. It works because there is an implied threat of force – the greater the potential force, the greater the degree of deterrence. Further, the threat has to be visible and present. The theoretical threat of a strike by a bomber based in the continental US is not effective. The threat has to be up close and personal and there is nothing more intimidating than a battleship. History has shown that. Let’s face it, the LCS is not going to deter anyone from anything. A battleship, however, offers a huge degree of deterrence due to the huge degree of force and visibility it represents.
The battleship, though gone, still has much to teach us and, in that respect, is still a valuable asset. Now, we just need to be open to the lessons.