Bring Back the Battleship?

It’s a question we’ve been asking now and then, probably since Montana-class super-battleship contraction was abandoned during WWII, in favor of more aircraft carriers. Still, the issue remains ripe as we continue to look for ways to add more firepower and survivability to our shrinking Navy.

Robert Farley puts it this way in The National Interest:

With the advent of the age of airpower (and missile power), size no longer dramatically increased lethality for surface warships. At the same time, a proliferation of threats made ensuring survivability more difficult. The huge battleships of the Second World War could not survive concerted air and submarine attack, and could not punch back at sufficient range to justify their main armament. Except for aircraft carriers, where lethality still increased with size, naval architecture took a turn for the petite. The chief surface ships of the U.S. Navy (USN) today displace less than a quarter that of the battleships of World War II.

But what about a big ship with a 20th Century-style 16-ince cold-rolled hull, for a ship bristling with 21st Century active and passive defenses? That’s where the discussion heats up:

The biggest reason to build big ships may be the promise of electricity generation. The most interesting innovations in naval technology involve sensors, unmanned technology, lasers, and railguns, most of which are power intensive. Larger ships can generate more power, increasing not only their lethality (rail guns, sensors) but also their survivability (anti-missile lasers, defensive sensor technologies, close-defense systems). The missile magazines that large ships can carry although them to draw together these elements and lethality and survivability better than their smaller counterparts.

What about a true successor to the classic battleship, designed to both deal out and absorb punishment? Advances in materials design have certainly increased the ability of other military systems (most notably the tank) to survive punishment, and a serious effort to create an armored ship would undoubtedly result in a well-protected vessel. The problem is that passive systems need to protect a ship from a wide range of different attacks, including cruise missiles, torpedoes, ballistic missiles, and long-range guns. Keeping a ship well-protected from these threats, all of which it could anticipate facing in an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) situation, would likely prove cost-prohibitive.

There’s also the issue of shipbuilding capacity, which is able to cope with our current, lackadaisical procurement rate, but lacks the trained workers or facilities for much more.

But we do still have four perfectly good Iowa-class hulls. We brought them back into service for a brief time during the ’80s and early ’90s, modernized with Harpoon missiles, advanced radar, and all the current goodies.

Why not bring them back once more — only more thoroughly modernized? As I think we’ve discussed here before, it wouldn’t be easy or cheap, but it might be doable.

Remove the armored deck and take out the insides, including those big diesels. Drop in three or four of the Navy’s tiny, long-lived A1B reactors from the Ford-class CVNs, then replace the armored deck and festoon it with AEGIS radar sets and enough fricken laser beams to melt the Moon.

I’m not sure I’m kidding about this, either.