make military policy and amateurs who follow it alike are in something of a
vacuum when it comes to naval warfare.
While the Navy is a very large share of the United States Defense
Department budget, there have been so few skirmishes in the past fifty years or
so that it is hard to get a reality check on the multi-billion dollar
expenditures involved. The few
incidents which have occurred, meanwhile, have taken on disproportionate
naval history is too distant to be of much use, from the ramming battles
between glorified rowboats of the Greeks, to the days of sails and cannons, it
is fair, at least, to look at the experience of World War II, the last full
fledged blue sea naval campaign in world history. This experience has informed much of the
current conventional wisdom regarding naval warfare, and while the lessons
learned in World War II need to be updated to reflect technological advances
that have taken place since then, they are too recent to safely ignore.
things, World War II taught the lesson that the heavy armor of a battleship was
no match for modern offensive weapons.
As the Wikipedia article linked above explains:
Battleships were the largest and most complex, and hence the most expensive warships of their time; as a result, the value of investment in battleships has always been contested.
As the French politician Etienne Lamy wrote in 1879, "The construction of battleships is so costly, their effectiveness so uncertain and of such short duration, that the enterprise of creating an armored fleet seems to leave fruitless the perseverance of a people". The Jeune École school of thought of the 1870s and 1880s sought alternatives to the crippling expense and debatable utility of a conventional battlefleet. It proposed what would nowadays be termed a sea denial strategy, based on fast, long-ranged cruisers for commerce raiding and torpedo boat flotillas to attack enemy ships attempting to blockade French ports.
The ideas of the Jeune École were ahead of their time; it was not until the 20th century that efficient mines, torpedoes, submarines, and aircraft were available that allowed similar ideas to be effectively implemented. The determination of powers such as Germany to build battlefleets with which to confront much stronger rivals has been criticised by historians, who emphasise the futility of investment in a battlefleet that has no chance of matching its opponent in an actual battle.
Large Warships In Existing Navies
Today, there are only two ships of the battleship class in the world, both in the Russian Navy, only one of which is in active service, the 28,000 ton Admiral Nakhimov commissioned in 1988 is currently undergoing refit and is out of service, and the 28,000 ton Pyotr Velikiy, of the same class commissioned in 1998 is in active service.
The 14,564 ton Zumwalt class destroyer of the U.S. Navy, the largest warship in the U.S. Navy that is not an aircraft carrier or non-combatant logistics ship, and is is arguably misclassified as a destroyer deserves a battleship designation. Just three Zumwalt class destroyers have three have been built (and no more have been ordered). One was commissioned in 2016, one was commissioned in 2019, and one is awaiting a commission later this year. It cost $7.5 billion per ship of total cost to build and has been severely criticized:
Mike Fredenburg analyzed the program for National Review after Zumwalt broke down in the Panama Canal in November 2016, and he concluded that the ship's problems "are emblematic of a defense procurement system that is rapidly losing its ability to meet our national security needs." Fredenburg went on to detail problems relating to the skyrocketing costs, lack of accountability, unrealistic goals, a flawed concept of operations, the perils of designing a warship around stealth, and the failure of the Advanced Gun System. He concludes:
"The Zumwalt is an unmitigated disaster. Clearly it is not a good fit as a frontline warship. With its guns neutered, its role as a primary anti-submarine-warfare asset in question, its anti-air-warfare capabilities inferior to those of our current workhorse, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and its stealth not nearly as advantageous as advertised, the Zumwalt seems to be a ship without a mission."
Each of the three ships of the Zumwalt class have two six inch guns and room to hold almost a thousand shells for them, but no ammunition (emphasis mine):
The Advanced Gun System (AGS) is a naval artillery system developed and produced by BAE Systems Armaments Systems for the Zumwalt-class destroyer of the United States Navy. Designated the 155 mm/62 (6.1") Mark 51 Advanced Gun System (AGS), it was designed to provide long range naval gunfire support against shore-based targets. A total of six of the systems have been installed, two on each of the three Zumwalt-class ships. The Navy has no plans for additional Zumwalt-class ships, and no plans to deploy AGS on any other ship. AGS can only use ammunition designed specifically for the system. Only one ammunition type was designed, and the Navy halted its procurement in November 2016 due to cost ($800,000 to $1 million per round), so the AGS has no ammunition and cannot be used.
Indeed, only twenty navies in the world have surface warships (including aircraft carriers, but not transport ships) larger than a frigate: U.S. (111), Japan (48), China (33), Russia (20), India (14), France (14), United Kingdom (7), Norway (5), Italy (4), Taiwan (4), Netherlands (4), Denmark (3), Germany (3), South Korea (3), Egypt (3), Saudi Arabia (3), Spain (2), Brazil (1), Thailand (1), and Morocco (1).
Only seven of these countries (China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Thailand and Morocco) would plausibly be U.S. naval warfare adversaries in the foreseeable future (while many of the remaining thirteen countries would likely be allies of the U.S. in an future naval warfare in their region). These seven plausible adversaries have 62 large surface warships ships combined. Of these only China and Russia are really serious concerns militarily and they have 53 large surface warships combined.
The Russian fleet's large ships, moreover, are split between several global regions that are distant from each other in some case (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific). The aircraft carrier, the battleship, one smaller cruiser, and six destroyers are in Russia's Northern fleet. One smaller cruiser and five destroyers are in Russia's Pacific fleet. One of its smaller cruisers and one of its destroyers are in Russia's Black Sea fleet. Three of its destroyers are in Russia's Baltic fleet.
Several other plausible U.S. naval warfare adversaries such as Iran and North Korea have submarines but no large surface combatants.
Currently, the U.S. has 20 aircraft carriers (11 "super carriers" of 100,000 tons or more, and 9 amphibious assault ships which can carry helicopters, Osprey aircraft, Harrier aircraft or F-35B aircraft of 40,000-45,000 tons), Italy has 2, Japan has 4, France has 4, Australia has 2, Egypt has 2, and Brazil, China, India, Russia, Spain, Thailand and the United Kingdom each have one. In all there are 42 aircraft carriers in active naval service in the world.
Five aircraft carriers (one each from the U.K., China, Russia, India and France in order of size) are between the size of a U.S. super carrier and the smallest U.S. amphibious assault ship ranging from 42,000 to 65,000 tons (and only four of these from the China, Russia, India and France, and the ten U.S. super carriers, allow for something other than a vertical landing). The other eighteen aircraft carriers range from 11,486 tons to 27,100 tons (eleven of which are restricted to vertical takeoff and landing aircraft such as helicopters and the MV-22 Osprey). All twenty-seven carriers under 42,000 tons and two larger aircraft (one from the U.S. at 45,000 tons and one from the U.K. at 65,000 tons) are restricted either to short takeoff vertical landing aircraft such as an F-35B or a Harrier, or to vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
Eleven more carriers (including two that are only VTOL carriers) are undergoing sea trials or ordered: the U.S. 3, China 3, and South Korea, India, Italy and Turkey one each.
Currently, the U.S. has 22 cruisers (10,000 tons each) and Russia has 4 (one battleship with 28,000 tons and three cruisers with 12,500 tons) in active service. In all there are 27 cruisers in active naval service in the world. The U.S. cruisers are virtually indistinguishable from its destroyers and slightly inferior to them as they are older designs.
Currently, the U.S. has 69 destroyers (including 2 of the Zumwalt class), Japan has 44, China has 32, Russia has 15, India has 13, France has 10, the U.K. has 6, Norway has 5, Taiwan has 4, the Netherlands has 4, Germany has 3, Denmark has 3, South Korea has 3, Saudi Arabia has 3, Italy has 2, Egypt has 1, Morocco has 1, and Spain has 1. The largest destroyer in active service (other than the two Zumwalt class destroyers in active service) is 10,290 tons and many of which are considerably smaller. Some of the destroyer class ships are larger, more capable ships actually called frigates in an effort to make comparisons comparable. All ships classified as frigates for these purposes are under 5,000 tons, although a few particularly capable frigates between 4,000 and 5,000 tons are classified as destroyers. There are 219 destroyers in all of the world's navies combined.
In all there are 42 aircraft carriers over 11,000 tons and 7 other surface combatants over 11,000 tons in naval service in the world. Of those, 20 aircraft carriers and 2 other surface combatants are in the U.S. Navy and 1 aircraft carrier and 4 other surface combatants (one battleship and three cruisers) are in the Russian Navy. The other navies of the world have 21 aircraft carriers, only 10 of which are more than VTOL helicopter carriers. There are 244 other surface combatants bigger than frigates in the world in active naval service (of which 67 are in the U.S. Navy and 15 are in the Russian Navy).
The Japanese Naval Experience
The case that really brought this home for the Japanese was
the sinking of the battleship Yamato. This 71,000 ton ship with massive 18 inch
guns was tough. It had previously survived a hit from a
torpedo delivered by a U.S. submarine on Christmas Day in 1943, and two bombs
that hit it in October of 1944, in the Leyte Gulf. Two more 36,000 ton Japanese battleships, the Fuso and the Yamashiro, were sunk by
naval gunfire and torpedoes in that same October battle. Bombs damaged the 39,000 ton Japanese
battleship Nagato in the battle of the Leyte Gulf badly
enough to remove it from action. Ultimately, air power prevailed over the big
guns and heavy armor of the pinnacle of the battleship era. On April 7, 1945, the Yamato was sunk by carrier based U.S. aircraft and it took 2,498 Japanese sailors with
it. The 32,000 ton Japanese battleship Ise (already removed from service nine months earlier by a
mine), and Japanese battleships Hyunga and Haruna were sunk by carrier based U.S. aircraft in July of
Japan had already lost its 32,000 ton battlecruiser Kirishima to 16”
naval gunfire from the 47,000 ton American battleship Washington in 1942 in one of the last of the battles that went according traditional naval
models of close range ship to ship combat, in this case, at a range of a mile
and a half. The 28,000 ton Japanese
battleship Kongo was sunk by a submarine in November of
1944. Its three sister ships were sunk
by U.S. aircraft in World War II.
The American Naval Experience in World War II
remember Pearl Harbor. Yes, this carrier
based air attack was a surprise. But, a
heavily armored hull did not prevent this attack from sinking the 32,000 ton
U.S. battleship Arizona and three other battleships. Four more battleships were seriously damaged,
the 29,000 ton American battleship Nevada among them,
although the Nevada was ultimately returned to service and survived further
battle damage on multiple occasions. Few
naval strategists before Pearl Harbor had realized how vulnerable the fleet was
to aerial attack.
ton American battleship Idaho ran aground off Okinawa in
June of 1945. American battleship Pennsylvania, a
sister ship of the Arizona, was taken out of action by
enemy aircraft in August of 1945.
ton American battleship Indiana did exhibit the resilience
in the face of damage which battleships are legendary for notwithstanding a
mixed experience in real life. It
survived both a collision and a hit by a kamikaze pilot in 1944, and serious
storm damage in 1945, and survived until decommissioning in 1963. The 45,000 ton South
Dakota similarly sustained and survived repeated battle damage. The
56,000 ton American battleship Iowa likewise survived
serious damage from shore fire sustained in March of 1944, and the 47,000 ton
battleship Washington survived a 1942 torpedo hit from a
Japanese submarine and a 1945 friendly fire incident.
The German Naval Experience in World War II
51,000 ton battleship the Bismark found its fate at the
bottom of the sea in May of 1941. The
British Royal Air Force damaged the 40,000 ton German battleship Gneisenau to the point that it never again was useable as a battleship in 1942. Sister German battleship Scharnhorst, however, survived in the face of a seemingly
never ending barrage of hits sustained.
The Italian and Vichy French Naval Experiences in World War II
and Vichy France both saw battleships destroyed in port before they were ever
The planned 48,000 ton
battleship Clemenceau was destroyed in its French port
during a bombing raid in August 1944. The 36,000 ton battleship Dunkerque, in the hands of the Vichy French, was damaged sufficiently to be taken out of action, and lost one in seven of its crew members, in July of 1940, by a combination of British warship attacks and torpedoes in two separate incidents.
ton Italian battleship Duilio wasn’t actually sunk, but a
British bombing raid in November of 1940 took it out of service for about a
year, and the ship served only a brief secondary role in World War II thereafter. The 46,000 ton battleship Vittorio
Veneto was taken out of action by British aircraft in 1941, then by
a submarine, and then 1943 by another aircraft.
The 47,000 ton Italian battleship Littorio was
taken out of commission by British aircraft by June of 1942.
The Spanish Naval Experience in World War II
ton battleship Espana was sunk by a “friendly” mine in
July of 1937 during the Spanish civil war, killing a third of the sailors on
The British Naval Experience in World Wars I and II.
predates World War II, it is worth recalling that the 22,000 ton British
battleship Dreadnought (the second of that name launched
in 1906) which became synonymous with the very notion of a battleship, sank
only one enemy vessel, a German submarine, in all of World War I. It achieved this end not with its ten 12”
guns, but with a methodology as old as Greek naval warfare. It rammed it.
bombing planes took the 30,000 ton British battleship Iron Duke out of service on October 17, 1939. It
Italian airplane’s torpedo took the 38,000 ton British battleship Nelson out of service for a year on September 27, 1941. The British lost the 42,000 ton battleship Prince of Wales in December of 1941 to an attack by
Japanese aircraft, after having suffered serious damage from naval guns, which
was repaired, earlier that same year.
The 33,000 ton British battleship Queen Elizabeth was removed from service when an Italian frogman bombed it while it was in
harbor that same month.