What would you choose in a war?
For decades, the world’s great powers built countless battleships, not only as a way to win the modern naval battles of the time, but to demonstrate their nation's technical and naval capabilities on the grandest of scales. While the era of the battleship is over, talk still pops up every now and again about a return from retirement , with America’s Iowa-Class battleships being brought back into service--well, at least in our imaginations .
Aircraft carriers, on the other hand, are still the dominant power projection platform of the U.S. and other navies. While many argue the carrier is following a similar path towards obsolescence, thanks to various types of anti-access/area-denial weapons, one can’t deny that the mighty flattop, at least for right now, is still the ultimate non-nuclear way to quickly strike an advisory with devastating force.
But which battleships and carriers were the best? Below, combined for your reading pleasure, are essays authored by James Holmes and Robert Farley, posted several years ago, that tackles this important question.
Ranking the greatest battleships of all time is a tad easier than ranking naval battles. Both involve comparing apples with oranges. But at least taking the measure of individual men-of-war involves comparing one apple with one orange. That's a compact endeavor relative to sorting through history to discern how seesaw interactions shaped the destinies of peoples and civilizations.
----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----
Still, we need some standard for distinguishing between battlewagons. What makes a ship great? It makes sense, first of all, to exclude any ship before the reign of Henry VIII. There was no line-of-battle ship in the modern sense before England's "great sea-king" founded the sail-driven Royal Navy in the 16th century. Galley warfare was quite a different affair from lining up capital ships and pounding away with naval gunnery.
One inescapable chore is to compare ships' technical characteristics. A recent piece over at War Is Boring revisits an old debate among battleship and World War II enthusiasts. Namely, who would've prevailed in a tilt between a U.S. Navy Iowa-class dreadnought and the Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato? Author Michael Peck restates the common wisdom from when I served in mighty Wisconsin, last of the battleships: it depends on who landed the first blow. Iowas commanded edges in speed and fire control, while Yamato and her sister Musashi outranged us and boasted heavier weight of shot. We would've made out fine had we closed the range before the enemy scored a lucky hit from afar. If not, things may have turned ugly.
Though not in so many words, Peck walks through the basic design features that help qualify a battleship for history's elite -- namely guns, armor, and speed. Makes sense, doesn't it? Offensive punch, defensive resiliency, and speed remain the hallmarks of any surface combatant even in this missile age. Note, however, that asymmetries among combat vessels result in large part from the tradeoffs naval architects must make among desirable attributes.
Only sci-fi lets shipwrights escape such choices. A Death Star of the sea would sport irresistible weaponry, impenetrable armor, and engines able to drive the vessel at breakneck speed. But again, you can't have everything in the real world. Weight is a huge challenge. A battleship loaded down with the biggest guns and thickest armor would waddle from place to place. It would make itself an easy target for nimbler opponents or let them run away. On the other hand, assigning guns and speed top priority works against rugged sides. A ship that's fleet of foot but lightly armored exposes its innards and crew to enemy gunfire. And so forth. Different navies have different philosophies about tradeoffs. Hence the mismatches between Yamato and Iowa along certain parameters. Thus has it always been when fighting ships square off.
But a battleship is more than a machine. Machines neither rule the waves nor lose out in contests for mastery. People do. People ply the seas, and ideas about shiphandling and tactics guide their combat endeavors. Great Britain's Royal Navy triumphed repeatedly during the age of sail. Its success owed less to superior materiel -- adversaries such as France and the United States sometimes fielded better ships -- than to prolonged voyages that raised seamanship and gunnery to a high art. Indeed, a friend likes to joke that the 18th century's finest warship was a French 74-gun ship captured -- and crewed -- by Royal Navy mariners. The best hardware meets the best software.
That's why in the end, debating Jane's Fighting Ships entries -- lists of statistics -- for Iowa, Yamato, and their brethren from other times and places fails to satisfy. What looks like the best ship on paper may not win. A ship need not outmatch its opponents by every technical measure. It needs to be good enough. That is, it must match up well enough to give an entrepreneurial crew, mindful of the tactical surroundings, a reasonable chance to win. The greatest battleship thus numbers among the foremost vessels of its age by material measures, and is handled by masterful seamen.
But adding the human factor to the mix still isn't enough. There's an element of opportunity, of sheer chance. True greatness comes when ship and crew find themselves in the right place at the right time to make history. A battleship's name becomes legend if it helps win a grand victory, loses in dramatic fashion, or perhaps accomplishes some landmark diplomatic feat. A vessel favored (or damned) by fortune, furthermore, becomes a strategic compass rose. It becomes part of the intellectual fund on which future generations draw when making maritime strategy. It's an artifact of history that helps make history.
So we arrive at one guy's gauge for a vessel's worth: strong ship, iron men, historical consequence. In effect, then, I define greatest as most iconic. Herewith, my list of history's five most iconic battleships, in ascending order:
The German Navy's Bismarck lived a short life that supplies the stuff of literature to this day. Widely considered the most capable battleship in the Atlantic during World War II, Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, with a single round from her main battery. On the other hand, the leadership's martial spirit proved brittle when the going got tough. In fact, it shattered at the first sharp rap. As commanders' resolve went, so went the crew's.
Notes Bernard Brodie, the dreadnought underwent an "extreme oscillation" in mood. Exaltation stoked by the encounter with Hood gave way to despair following a minor torpedo strike from a British warplane. Admiral Günther Lütjens, the senior officer on board, gathered Bismarck crewmen after the air attack and "implored them to meet death in a fashion becoming to good Nazis." A great coach Lütjens was not. The result? An "abysmally poor showing" in the final showdown with HMS Rodney, King George V, and their entourage. One turret crew fled their guns. Turret officers reportedly kept another on station only at gunpoint. Marksmanship and the guns' rate of fire -- key determinants of victory in gunnery duels -- suffered badly.
In short, Bismarck turned out to be a bologna flask (hat tip: Clausewitz), an outwardly tough vessel that shatters at the slightest tap from within. In 1939 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder lamented that the German surface fleet, flung into battle long before it matured, could do little more than "die with honor." Raeder was righter than he knew. Bismarck's death furnishes a parable that captivates navalists decades hence. How would things have turned out had the battlewagon's human factor proved less fragile? We'll never know. Doubtless her measure of honor would be bigger.
As noted at the outset, Yamato was an imposing craft by any standard. She displaced more than any battleship in history, as much as an early supercarrier, and bore the heaviest armament. Her mammoth 18-inch guns could sling 3,200-lb. projectiles some 25 nautical miles. Armor was over two feet thick in places. Among the three attributes of warship design, then, Yamato's designers clearly prized offensive and defensive strength over speed. The dreadnought could steam at 27 knots, not bad for a vessel of her proportions. But that was markedly slower than the 33 knots attainable by U.S. fast battleships.
Like Bismarck, Yamato is remembered mainly for falling short of her promise. She provides another cautionary tale about human fallibility. At Leyte Gulf in October 1944, a task force centered on Yamato bore down on the transports that had ferried General Douglas MacArthur's landing force ashore on Leyte, and on the sparse force of light aircraft carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts guarding the transports from seaward assault.
Next ensued the immortal charge of the tin-can sailors. The outclassed American ships charged Yamato and her retinue. Like Lütjens, Admiral Takeo Kurita, the task-force commander, appeared to wilt under less-than-dire circumstances. Historians still argue about whether he mistook Taffy 3, the U.S. Navy contingent, for a far stronger force; lost his nerve; or simply saw little point in sacrificing his ships and men. Whatever the case, Kurita ordered his fleet to turn back -- leaving MacArthur's expeditionary force mostly unmolested from the sea.
Yamato met a quixotic fate, though less ignominious than Bismarck's. In April 1945 the superbattleship was ordered to steam toward Okinawain company with remnants of the surface fleet, there to contest the Allied landings. The vessel would deliberately beach itself offshore, becoming an unsinkable gun emplacement until it was destroyed or its ammunition was exhausted. U.S. naval intelligence got wind of the scheme, however, and aerial bombardment dispatched Yamato before she could reach her destination. A lackluster end for history's most fearsome battlewagon.
Iowa and New Jersey were the first of the Iowa class and compiled the most enviable fighting records in the class, mostly in the Pacific War. Missouri was no slouch as a warrior, but -- alone on this list -- she's celebrated mainly for diplomatic achievements rather than feats of arms. General MacArthur accepted Japan's surrender on her weatherdecks in Tokyo Bay, leaving behind some of the most enduring images from 20th-century warfare. Missouri has been a metaphor for how to terminate big, open-ended conflicts ever since. For instance, President Bush the Elder invoked the surrender in his memoir. Missouri supplied a measuring stick for how Desert Storm might unfold. (And as it happens, a modernized Missouri was in Desert Storm.)
Missouri remained a diplomatic emissary after World War II. The battlewagon cruised to Turkey in the early months after the war, as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and communist insurgencies menaced Greece and Turkey. Observers interpreted the voyage as a token of President Harry Truman's, and America's, commitment to keeping the Soviet bloc from subverting friendly countries. Message: the United States was in Europe to stay. Missouri thus played a part in the development of containment strategy while easing anxieties about American abandonment. Naval diplomacy doesn't get much better than that.
Admiral Togo Heihachiro's flagship is an emblem for maritime command. The British-built Mikasa was arguably the finest battleship afloat during the fin de siècle years, striking the best balance among speed, protection, and armament. The human factor was strong as well. Imperial Japanese Navy seamen were known for their proficiency and élan, while Togo was renowned for combining shrewdness with derring-do. Mikasa was central to fleet actions in the Yellow Sea in 1904 and the Tsushima Strait in 1905 -- battles that left the wreckage of two Russian fleets strewn across the seafloor. The likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan considered Tsushima a near-perfect fleet encounter.
Like the other battleships listed here, Mikasa molded how subsequent generations thought about diplomacy and warfare. IJN commanders of the interwar years planned to replicate Tsushima Strait should Japan fall out with the United States. More broadly, Mikasa and the rest of the IJN electrified peoples throughout Asia and beyond. Japan, that is, proved that Western imperial powers could be beaten in battle and ultimately expelled from lands they had subjugated. Figures ranging from Sun Yat-sen to Mohandas Gandhi to W. E. B. Du Bois paid homage to Tsushima, crediting Japan with firing their enthusiasm for overthrowing colonial rule.
Mikasa, then, was more than the victor in a sea fight of modest scope. And her reputation outlived her strange fate. The vessel returned home in triumph following the Russo-Japanese War, only to suffer a magazine explosion and sink. For the Japanese people, the disaster confirmed that they had gotten a raw deal at the Portsmouth Peace Conference. Nevertheless, it did little to dim foreign observers' enthusiasm for Japan's accomplishments.Mikasa remained a talisman.
Topping this list is the only battleship from the age of sail. HMS Victory was a formidable first-rate man-of-war, cannon bristling from its three gun decks. But her fame comes mainly from her association with Lord Horatio Nelson, whom Mahan styles "the embodiment of the sea power of Great Britain." In 1805 Nelson led his outnumbered fleet into combat against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, near Gibraltar. Nelson and right-hand man Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood led columns of ships that punctured the enemy line of battle. The Royal Navy crushed its opponent in the ensuing melee, putting paid to Napoleon's dreams of invading the British Isles.
Felled on board his flagship that day, Nelson remains a synonym for decisive battle. Indeed, replicating Trafalgar became a Holy Grail for naval strategists across the globe. Permanently drydocked at Portsmouth, Victory is a shrine to Nelson and his exploits -- and the standard of excellence for seafarers everywhere. That entitles her to the laurels of history's greatest battleship.
Surveying this list of icons, two battleships made the cut because of defeats stemming from slipshod leadership, two for triumphs owing to good leadership, and one for becoming a diplomatic paragon. That's not a bad reminder that human virtues and frailties -- not wood, or metal, or shot -- are what make the difference in nautical enterprises.
The first true aircraft carriers entered service at the end of World War I, as the Royal Navy converted several of its excess warships into large, floating airfields. During the interwar period, Japan and the United States would make their own conversions, and all three navies would supplement these ships with purpose-built carriers. Within months of the beginning of hostilities in September 1939, the carrier demonstrated its worth in a variety of maritime tasks.
By the end of 1941, carriers would become the world’s dominant capital ship. These are the five most lethal carriers to serve in the world’s navies, selected on the basis of their contribution to critical operations, and on their longevity and resilience.
The U.S. Navy supplemented Lexington and Saratoga, the most effective of the interwar battlecruiser conversions, with the purpose-built USS Ranger. Experience with all three ships demonstrated that the next purpose-built class would require a larger hull and flight deck, as well as a heavier anti-aircraft armament. This resulted in USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, which along with their third sister (USS Hornet) would play a critical role in stopping the Imperial Japanese Navy’s advance in 1942. Capable of cruising at 33 knots, Enterprise displaced around 24,000 tons and could carry up to 90 aircraft.
While both Hornet and Yorktown were lost in the carrier battles of 1942, Enterprise served throughout the entire war. She helped search for the Japanese fleet in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and carried out the first reprisal raids in the early months of the war. She escorted Hornet on the Doolittle Raid, then helped sink four Japanese flattops at the Battle of Midway. She filled a crucial role during the Battles of Guadalcanal, surviving several near-catastrophic Japanese attacks.
Later in the war, Enterprise operated with the growing American carrier fleet as it formed core of the counter-offensive that would roll up Japanese possessions in the Pacific. Enterprise fought at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, helping to destroy the heart of Japanese naval aviation. She served in the final raids against Japan in 1945 until a kamikaze caused critical damage in May. Returning to service just as the war ended, she helped return American soldiers to the United States in Operation Magic Carpet. Enterprise was the most decorated ship in any navy during World War II, but sadly post-war preservation efforts failed, and the carrier was scrapped in 1960.
Between September 1939 and April 1942, the Royal Navy lost five of its seven pre-war aircraft carriers. HMS Illustrious and her three sisters filled the gap. Laid down in 1937, Illustrious traded aircraft complement for an armored deck, an innovation that would make the ship more robust than her Japanese or American counterparts. Displacing 23,000 tons, Illustrious could make 30 knots and carrying 36 aircraft.
Illustrious’ first major achievement came in November 1940, when her Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked the battleships of the Italian navy at anchor at Taranto. The attack, carried out on a shoestring compared to the great raids of the Pacific War, nevertheless managed to sink or heavily damage three Italian battleships. Illustrious spent the next few months carrying out raids in the Mediterranean and covering the evacuation of Greece. In the course of the latter, she survived several hits from German divebombers.
After receiving repairs in the United States, Illustrious operated against the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. She returned to the European theater in 1943, making additional raids on Norway and in support of Allied landings in Italy. Later Illustrious returned to the Pacific, where supplied with superior American carrier aircraft, she helped spearhead the Royal Navy counter-offensive into Southeast Asia. After surviving a kamikaze attack, she returned to Great Britain and eventually served as a training carrier before being scrapped in 1957.
Zuikaku represented the zenith of pre-war Japanese carrier development. Along with her sister Shokaku, Zuikaku filled out Kido Butai with the addition of two large, fast, modern carriers. Displacing 32,000 tons and capable of carrying 72 aircraft, Zuikaku could make 34 knots, and absorb a relatively large amount of battle damage.
The size and modernity of the carriers meant that they could handle a greater operational tempo early in the war. After the Pearl Harbor raid, they participated in the Indian Ocean Raid, helping to sink the British carrier Hermes and several other ships. Afterward, Zuikaku and her sister deployed to Port Moresby to cover Japanese landings in what became the Battle of Coral Sea. Zuikaku survived undamaged, and contributed to the sinking of USS Lexington, but because of a lack of aircraft could not participate in the Battle of Midway.
Zuikaku continued to form the core of the Japanese carrier fleet into 1944, participating in and surviving the battles of Guadalcanal (where her aircraft helped sink USS Hornet) and the Battle of Philippine Sea. By October 1944, her supply of aircraft and pilots was almost completely exhausted. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Zuikaku and several other carriers served as bait for Halsey’s battleships and carriers, luring them away from the center of the Japanese attack. The last survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, Zuikaku sank under a barrage of bombs and torpedoes.
USS Midway entered service in September 1945, shortly after the end of hostilities against Japan. She displaced 45,000 tons, could make 33 knots, and could carry roughly 100 aircraft. Midway and her sisters represented a step beyond the Essex-class carriers that had won the Pacific War, and promised to introduce a new era of naval aviation.
Upon commissioning, Midway became the world’s most lethal aircraft carrier. The offensive power of her air group exceeded that of the Essex carriers then in service, and with the introduction of jet aircraft the gap would grow. With the A-2 Savage carrier-based bomber, Midway and her sisters briefly became the only carriers in the world capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Midway underwent extensive modification over the course of her career, eventually acquiring an angled flight deck and other innovations. Although she missed Korea, Midway operated off Vietnam, and continued to serve as the larger “supercarriers” came online. She found heavy use in the Gulf War of 1990, as her (relative) small size gave her an advantage in maneuverability over the more modern supercarriers. Midway left service in 1992, having spanned the history of naval aviation from the F6F Hellcat to the F/A-18 Hornet.
USS Theodore Roosevelt:
The ten Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers have been the world’s dominant capital ships since they began to enter service in the late 1970s. Constructed over a period spanning nearly 35 years, the class continues to provide the core of American naval power. Among the most active of the Nimitz class has been the USS Theodore Roosevelt, first of the second group of ships. Roosevelt entered service in 1986; she displaces over 100,000 tons, carries between 75-80 aircraft, and can make 30 knots top speed.
Roosevelt has served in most of the conflicts of the post Cold-War era. In 1991 she launched strikes against Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Storm. In 1999, her aircraft conducted strikes in Kosovo and Serbia in service of Operation Allied Force. After the September 11 attacks, Roosevelt deployed to the Middle East and participated in the first sorties against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Operation Enduring Freedom. Two years later, her aircraft flew against Iraqi targets again in the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After a refit, Roosevelt launched strikes against both Afghan and Iraqi targets in the latter part of the decade. Most recently, Roosevelt helped blockade Yemeni ports against a suspected Iranian arms convoy.
Like her sister ships, Roosevelt has already undergone substantial modification across the course of her thirty year career, and the Navy expects that these refits will continue into the future. Current projections suggest that she will leave service around 2035, which would give the carrier a nearly fifty-year span of lethality.
Pundits and analysts have predicted the obsolescence and demise of the aircraft carrier since the waning days of World War II. At the moment, however, the Russian, Indian, British, Chinese, French, and American navies continue to put faith, and resources, into carrier aviation. Despite the vulnerability of the big ships to attack, they provide a unique combination of presence, prestige, and lethality that continues to make them attractive to the world’s most powerful navies.
----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----