The Ultimate Weapon: Nuclear Armed Battleships?

The Buzz

In the early 1980s, four Iowa-class fast battleships originally built during World War II—Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin—were taken out of mothballs and returned to active duty.

Nearly 900 feet long and displacing close to 60,000 tons, the battlewagons could fire a nine-gun broadside sending 18 tons of steel and explosives hurtling towards their targets.

The battleships were modernized to include cruise missiles, ship-killing missiles and Phalanx point-defense guns. Returned to the fleet, the ships saw action off the coasts of Lebanon and Iraq. At the end of the Cold War the battleships were retired again. All were slated to become museums.

Few knew, however, that returning the battleships to service in the ’80s had been only part of the plan. The second, more ambitious phase was a radical redesign of the massive warships that would have combined the attributes of battleships and aircraft carriers.

The resulting ship, a “battlecarrier,” was merely one of many schemes over the span of 30 years to modernize the most powerful American battleships ever built. The various proposals—all of them nixed—had the World War II-era ships carrying hundreds of U.S. Marines or launching Harrier jump jets or even firing atomic projectiles.

A Hole in the Navy:

Before World War II, planners had assumed that the big-gun ships would win wars by duking it out with enemy vessels of the same kind. Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway dispelled that notion, as the flexibility and long-range striking power of aircraft carriers proved superior to battleships’ broadsides.

The battlewagons were relegated to a secondary role in the fleet, shelling shore defenses ahead of landings by the Army and Marines. And after the war, the Navy shed most of its heavy cruisers and battleships while retaining its aircraft carriers. The rush to embrace missiles further reduced the influence of the big-gun vessels, and the era of the battleship appeared to be over for good.

For the U.S. Marine Corps, this was a worrying trend. The seaborne invasion of Inchon during the Korean War showed that the age of amphibious assaults was not yet over. Military planners liked aircraft for their flexibility, but from the Marines’ perspective a ship that could sit off a coastline and bombard it with heavy guns for hours on end was vital.

There was a solution. The four Iowa-class battleships, in mothballs since World War II, were briefly reactivated during the Korean War to provide gunfire support for U.N. forces—and retired again after the war was over.

For some Navy planners, battleships were back in vogue. There were frequent attempts to return the battlewagons to service.

Nuclear Battleship:

In 1958, the Navy proposed overhauling the Iowa-class ships by removing all of the 16-inch guns and replacing them with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine missiles.

The new “guided missile battleships” would also carry four Regulus II cruise missiles, each of which could flatten a city a thousand miles distant with a nuclear warhead more than 100 times as powerful as the bomb used on Hiroshima.

The result would have certainly been the most powerful battleship ever, but the concept was riddled with inefficiencies. Under the proposal, 2,000 sailors would have had to sail into hostile waters in an expensive, 900-foot vessel to attack just four targets with nuclear weapons. An Air Force bomber could attack as many targets, at a greater range, with fewer than a dozen crew.

And at $1.5 billion in today’s dollars, the conversion would have been expensive.

At the same time, the Navy had put in orders for submarines to carry Polaris ballistic missiles. The proposed missile submarines could attack targets more than twice as far away as the Regulus II-armed battleship could, while carrying four times as many missiles and spending most of their time underwater avoiding detection.

The nuclear battleship concept was dead in the water.

Amphibious Battleship:

In 1961 a new proposal would have utilized the Iowa-class battleships to increase the navy’s troop-carrying capability. The rear turret and its three 16-inch guns would have been removed. In its place would be a hangar and a flight deck capable of carrying 30 helicopters.

The ship would also haul 14 landing craft to bring tanks and vehicles ashore. Accommodations for 1,800 Marines would be added.

Each of the amphibious Iowas would have been a one-ship expeditionary force.

Capable of laying down its own fire support with the remaining six 16-inch guns and deploying a battalion-sized Marine amphibious unit by air and sea, the ship would have been a hive of activity.

But it would still be expensive to convert and operate, and the Navy had many surplus aircraft carriers that could more cheaply be converted to amphibious platforms. Three such older carriers were modified, and the Iowa-class again stayed in mothballs.


The cost of the Vietnam War put a temporary hold on talk of reviving the Iowas in some new form. One of the battleships, New Jersey, was briefly reactivated to serve in Vietnam.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration began an ambitious shipbuilding program. It was decided to yet again bring back the four Iowas. In phase one, the ships were modernized with the addition of Tomahawk land attack missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Phalanx defense guns. By the mid-1980s, all four had returned to duty.

There was a phase two that was never executed, and it was more interesting.

This phase again involved removing the rear 16-inch gun turret. In its place would be built an overhanging flight deck and two forward-facing ski jumps that would hurl Marine Corps Harrier jump jets into the air. The ship would carry up to 20 Harriers, as well as a hangar and an aircraft elevator.

And that’s not all. Nestled between the two ski jumps would be a large field of missile silos, each holding Standard anti-aircraft or Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

The firepower of the battleships—and their destructive range—would have increased substantially. Trading one turret for 20 Harrier jets was a pretty good deal. Add the Tomahawks and their ability to strike with precision at a thousand miles and the improvements looked even better. The resulting warship would have equaled the firepower of a Nimitz-class supercarrier.

But as before, the Iowas’ inherent inefficiencies worked against them. With a crew of nearly 2,000 each, the ships’ high personnel costs made them prohibitively expensive to run in an all-volunteer navy. Harrier jets could already be carried by the Tarawa-class landing ships, and missile silos were proliferating across the fleet.

The Navy came to the conclusion that if the country was going to get its money’s worth from the four battleships, the vessels had to concentrate on their unique abilities: firing massive artillery shells at the enemy.

That meant keeping all three main gun turrets. The cool conversion schemes would have to stay just that, schemes.

Future Battlewagon:

Today the naval gunfire argument rages on. Even in the age of drones and precision warfare there are still occasional calls to bring the heavily manned, imprecise Iowa class back to service. There’s a certain romance to battleships, and having four Iowas sitting around in good condition has beguiled naval enthusiasts and planners for more than 60 years with schemes to bring them back.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers will go a long way towards providing battleship-quality naval gunfire support for the Marines. Minimally manned, relatively small, stealthy and precise, the Zumwalts are the antithesis of the Iowas, but functionally their successors.

Although each Zumwalt can only provide the explosive mass of a single one of an Iowa’s 16-inch guns, the newer ship can fire its smaller shells with GPS-aided precision up to 83 miles away, versus 20 miles for an Iowa.

Should the Zumwalt design be successful, the torch of the battleship could finally be transferred to them, and the Iowas can finally slumber in peace as museums, safe from the schemes of those who would revive them.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here.


No, China's Economy Hasn't Reached a Crisis...At Least Not Yet

The Buzz

I started my job at the Federal Reserve three weeks before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

I wish I had kept a diary of my initial months at the Fed, so I could recall clearly what we thought was happening each day. I do remember there was a discrete point where suddenly everything felt like it was in free-fall. It brought to mind the comment of Don Russel, Paul Keating's economic advisor, claiming there was a moment in his office when he heard the Australian economy snap, sometime in late 1989. I think I heard the U.S. economy snap in my Washington office in 2008.

Judging by the headlines, many people heard the Chinese economy snap last week. I didn't. The stock market is in trouble, but I'm not too concerned. As I said in an earlier post, “The stock market does not look to be of systemic importance to the Chinese economy. It is relatively small, it is not a major source of finance for firms, and stocks are not widely held.”

I do think China's next GDP numbers, to be released in October, will be disappointing. One reason is that financial services, which had accounted for a lot of growth earlier in the year (growing by 17.4%), will likely have had a poor quarter.

But there some good news stories too. Many people were concerned about low government revenue growth earlier this year, suggesting this was a sign of a weak economy. That figure has bounced back nicely, growing at 12.6%, year on year in July, and as far as I'm aware, tax rate increases are not responsible. A poor manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI; an index gauging manufacturer's sentiment) seemed to kick off the recent round of hand wringing, but the PMI for the non-manufacturing sector has held up so far.

This relates to a general point made by one of my favorite China experts, Nick Lardy of the Peterson Institute. Lardy thinks services are growing quite quickly. Moreover, he has this rebuttal to those who doubt the data:

“Naysayers question government economic data, continuing to focus on weakness in China's industrial sector and the extremely slow growth of electric power output. But steel production, for example, is significantly more energy intensive than entertainment, so the demand for electricity has fallen sharply as the structure of the economy has evolved.”

It's fair to say there is an entire industry based on the claim that Chinese GDP has long been overstated. But we don't often hear about the fact that China underestimates housing services in GDP, which is documented in the appendix of Lardy's book Sustaining China's Economic Growth After the Global Financial Crisis.

I digress. Yes, the Chinese economy faces risks. Debt has ballooned over the last eight years. The IMF, in its 2014 Article 4 consultation, had these words to say:

“Looking at a sample covering 43 countries over 50 years, staff identified only four episodes that experienced a similar scale of credit growth as China's recent TSF growth. Within three years following the boom period, all four countries had a banking crisis.”

That's a worry. But it does not imply that crisis is a certainty, or even the most likely result. The IMF, in its 2015 consultation, was more upbeat. And this is money the Chinese owe to themselves in their own currency. That takes off the table many of the risk factors that have plagued other emerging economies.

Am I foolishly saying 'This time is different'? Ken Rogoff, a former Chief Economist at the IMF who wrote the book on financial crises, may suggest that I am. I could look silly in six months. What I am not saying, however, is that China is certain to grow steadily, without incident, for years. It would be remarkable if China did not encounter turbulence. I just think we are some way from a full-blown crisis.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsAsia

CFTNI Job Posting: Senior Fellow, U.S.-China Relations

The Buzz

The Center for the National Interest seeks to hire a Senior Fellow to lead projects on U.S.-China relations and U.S. policy toward China.  As the Center’s principal full-time professional staff member focused on Asia, the Senior Fellow will play a key part in shaping this program and will be expected to build a highly visible role in Washington’s policy community.

The successful candidate will be a competent and accomplished self-starter with expertise on one or more key areas including: U.S.-China political and security relations, U.S.-China economic relations, U.S. policy toward China, Chinese foreign policy, China’s economy, and Chinese domestic politics.

Key responsibilities will include:

- Working with the management and with a part-time senior colleague to define program priorities and leading the Center’s pursuit of the agreed goals on a day-to-day basis;

- Planning and organizing a monthly series of meetings focused on topical issues in U.S.-China relations, including political, economic and security issues as well as China’s domestic politics;

- Writing policy-oriented articles and reports, including for the Center’s magazine The National Interest and, commenting in national media, and speaking regularly at the Center and other organizations;

- Conceptualizing, writing and submitting proposals to foundations and other organizations, in consultation with the management, to develop and expand the Center’s projects related to China and U.S.-China relations;

- Supervising a part-time program assistant and one or more volunteer interns, as needed.

A graduate degree in a related discipline or equivalent professional experience is required; Chinese (Mandarin) language proficiency is highly desirable.  Salary and benefits are competitive and based on experience and salary history.

To apply, please send a cover letter, curriculum vitae, professional biography, references, and one or two policy-oriented writing samples to Paul Saunders, Executive Director, Center for the National Interest at

TopicsJob Posting

The Ultimate Battleship Battle: Japan's Yamato vs. America's Iowa

The Buzz

It would have been the ultimate duel of dreadnoughts. In one corner, Japan’s Yamato, weighing in at 65,000 tons, the biggest battleship in history. In the other corner, Iowa, at 45,000 tons the pride of America's World War II battleship fleet. In reality, the two ships never met in battle. But what if they had, in a cataclysmic clash of seagoing titans?

One researcher can offer an answer, or at least a very educated guess. Jon Parshall, historian and author of the superb Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway has pitted the top battleships of various nations against each other at, the go-to site for information on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Among the battleships he compares are Yamato and Iowa, based on five criteria: guns, armor, underwater protection, fire control and “tactical factors” such as speed and damage control.

It would have been the ultimate duel of dreadnoughts. In one corner, Japan’s Yamato, weighing in at 65,000 tons, the biggest battleship in history. In the other corner, Iowa, at 45,000 tons the pride of America's World War II battleship fleet. In reality, the two ships never met in battle. But what if they had, in a cataclysmic clash of seagoing titans?

(Recommended: Is it Time to Bring Back the Battleships?)

One researcher can offer an answer, or at least a very educated guess. Jon Parshall, historian and author of the superb Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway has pitted the top battleships of various nations against each other at, the go-to site for information on the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Among the battleships he compares are Yamato and Iowa, based on five criteria: guns, armor, underwater protection, fire control and “tactical factors” such as speed and damage control.


Yamato’s 18.1-inch guns were the largest ever mounted on a warship. Since they couldn't match American quantity, it was Japanese navy doctrine for each warship to be more powerful than its individual U.S. counterpart. Yamato’s nine 18-inchers could throw a 3,200-pound shell out to 26 miles, while Iowa’s nine 16-inch guns could propel a 2,700-pound shell 24 miles.

Even though Japanese shells were less effective than American ones, the range advantage should belong to Yamato. Yet the real issue was even hitting the target in the first place. Given World War II fire control systems, the chance of hitting a battleship moving at 30 miles per hour from a distance of 25 miles is very small.

For his analysis, Parshall assumes that both battleship captains would close the range to less than 23 miles. At that distance, both the Yamato’s and Iowa’s guns could penetrate each other’s armor. “That’s why I say there’s a lot of luck involved here,” Parshall explained. “Iowa’s fire control is better. But if Yamato gets lucky and gets in the first hit or two, and they’re doozies, it could very easily be game over for Iowa.”

(Recommended: The 5 Most Deadly Battleships)

Advantage: neither ship.


Yamato seemingly had the edge here, with 16 inches of belt armor to Iowa’s 12 inches. The Japanese vessel had 9 inches of deck armor to Iowa’s 6, and an impressive 26 inches of armor on the faces of her main gun turrets, versus just 20 inches of turret armor for Iowa.

“Yamato was simply built to stand up to and utterly outclass any conceivable American or British opponent by sheer weight of gunfire and elephant-like armor,” Parshall writes. “As such, hers is a sort of ‘brute force’ approach to protection. Her armor layout isn’t the most efficient, but she has a lot of armor, so it doesn’t really matter.”

While Yamato was thickly armored everywhere, Iowa’s armor was thicker over her more vital areas. However, as Parshall points out, only America could afford to build battleships with hulls and interiors constructed entirely out of tough but light Special Treatment Steel, which meant that U.S. battleships could be smaller and lighter for an equivalent amount of protection.

(Recommended: The 5 Biggest Battleship Battles of All Time)

Nonetheless, Parshall gives a slight edge to Yamato here; if both ships suffered damage to their fire control systems and had to close the range, the invulnerability of Yamato’s turrets to Iowa’s shells could prove important.

Advantage: Yamato.

Underwater Protection:

Why is a battleships’s underwater armor important? Battlewagons hurled big cannon shells at each other, not torpedoes, which is why battleships tended to be more heavily armored above the waterline.

But tell that to the German warship Bismarck, which was ultimately hunted down and sunk after a 14-inch shell from the British Prince of Wales landed short, dove through the water and penetrated the German battleship below her more lightly armored waterline.

As part of its quest for qualitative superiority, Japan trained its battleship crews in long-range shots to achieve such devastating underwater hits. “The chances of any given shell giving us a good underwater effect is pretty low,” Parshall noted. “But if you throw enough shells up in the air, strange things can happen. And after a while, odds are, they probably will.”

Of the seven battleships Parshall analyzed, Yamato and Iowa had the best underwater armor. However, Yamato had poor seams between her upper and lower armor belts, which allowed water to enter when she was torpedoed by U.S. aircraft off Okinawa.

Advantage: Iowa.

Fire Control:

Marksmanship is a key consideration when trying to hit a moving target from 25 miles away, even one that is almost three football fields long. Here was perhaps the Iowa’s biggest advantage. Japanese fire control radar was poor, while American fire control radar was the best in the world.

“In a 1945 test, an American battleship (the North Carolina) was able to maintain a constant [fire control] solution even when performing back to back high-speed 450-degree turns, followed by back-to-back 100-degree turns,” Parshall writes.

“This was a much better performance than other contemporary systems,” he continues, “and gave U.S. battleships a major tactical advantage, in that they could both shoot and maneuver, whereas their opponents could only do one or the other.”

However, the Japanese had superb optical rangefinders and night binoculars, which enabled them to surprise and decimate the U.S. Navy in night battles off Guadalcanal. But optics were susceptible to bad weather and smoke.

“All optics do a very good job at determining bearing to the target, but not so good at determining range,” Parshall says. “World War II radar, on the flip, could give you a very good range number, but unless you had a modern set, getting a decent bearing was a real bear. So, the combination of decent optics plus world-class radar is way better than world-class optics plus crappy radar.”

Advantage: Iowa.

Tactical Factors:

Here Parshall lumps together several factors, such as speed and damage control. Iowa could sail at 33 knots to Yamato’s 27, which would confer some advantage in opening or closing range. Yamato had a displacement one-third larger than Iowa, which should confer a larger ability to absorb damage.

But when it comes to damage control, America was far ahead of Japan and other nations.

Advantage: Iowa.

And the Winner Is:

So which battleship would win? Based strictly on raw numbers, I would give the edge to Iowa based on her superior fire control. But it would only take a lucky hit or two to knock out a radar, and with those powerful 18.1-inch guns, a hit from Yamato’s main battery would hurt Iowa.

While both ships enjoyed certain advantages over each other, those advantages are so slender that luck would probably play as decisive role as firepower and armor.

Of course, this scenario is hypothetical, the province of armchair admirals and war gamers. Yamato and Iowa wouldn’t have stood turret-to-turret in an arena like a pair of heavyweight boxers. They would have been surrounded by cruisers, destroyers and subs.

In fact, the only time battleships slugged it out, without all the small fry in the way, was when Bismarck and the German cruiser Prinz Eugen confronted the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood in the Battle of the Denmark Strait.

In the end, a Yamato versus Iowa duel might have been a fascinating but futile curiosity. In 1945 the era of the battlewagon was already ending, sinking beneath the weight of swarms of aircraft. In fact, Yamato was sunk during its suicide run to Okinawa on April 7, 1945, overwhelmed by waves of U.S. carrier-based torpedo bombers.

Iowa enjoyed a career through World War II, Korea and was even reactivated during the 1980s. She bombarded shore targets aplenty, but never had the chance to engage an enemy battleship.

Advantage: Iowa.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The Lethal A-10 Warthog: A Nuclear Bomber?

The Buzz

Despite what the Pentagon and senior Air Force leaders might say, the A-10 Warthog is far from a “single-purpose airplane.” But dropping nuclear bombs might be one of the things the low- and slow-flying attackers actually can’t do.

But the Air Force once briefly considered the idea.

In December 1975, Secretary of Defense Bill Clements wanted to know how much it would cost to modify F-15 and F-16 fighter jets so they could carry atomic weapons. Two months later, the Air Force sent back data on what it would take to upgrade those two types of aircraft—or the A-10—with nukes.

“For your information, we have also provided similar cost data on the A-10 aircraft,” states an unclassified memo War Is Boring obtained from the Air Force Historical Research Agency. “The estimated cost to make 275 A-10s nuclear-capable is $15.9 million.”

The total amount—equivalent to more than $65 million today—would cover developing and testing the required equipment, and installing it on the Warthog fleet.

The flying branch’s calculations included systems needed to support B-43, B-57 and B-61 bombs.

At the time, these three bombs were the standard nuclear weapons for aircraft in the U.S. military. If a shooting war broke out in Europe, America’s NATO allies would have gotten access to these weapons, too. Newer versions of the B-61 remain in service today.

Obviously, the Air Force never ended up arming the A-10s with nukes.

But Clement’s desire for more nuclear-armed aircraft is hardly surprising. During the Cold War, the Pentagon expected to use nuclear bombs, artillery shells and missiles to fend off a Soviet invasion of Europe.

“As new aircraft are coming online in the 1970s, their use as nuclear delivery aircraft would have been discussed,” Air Force historian Brian Laslie says. “Tactical delivery of nuclear weapons was surely to be in planning documents for a European theater conflict.”

For many in Washington, the devastating power of atomic arms was the only way to deter the Kremlin. On paper at least, Moscow and her Warsaw Pact allies had a terrifying advantage in sheer numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles.

“Since 1968 the USSR has built over 65,000 armored vehicles for maneuver—nearly four times as many tanks as the United States, some three times as many armored infantry carriers,” warned a recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency article published in 1980.

But why the Air Force would offer up a nuclear-armed A-10 as a potential solution isn’t entirely clear.

While the Warthogs boast an impressive and unequaled array of ground attack capabilities, the straight-winged strike planes are poorly suited at best—and a death trap at worst—for a nuclear bombing run.

“This is a ‘could versus should’ question,” says a senior Air Force weapons and tactics planner, who spoke to War Is Boring on the condition of anonymity. “Certainly, the A-10 could have been modified for nuke delivery.”

“However, the more to the point question is whether or not it should have,” adds the official, who is also a former Warthog pilot. “In my opinion, I can see practically no reason to do so.”

The problem is that while the aircraft certainly could have delivered the bombs to their intended targets, the pilots probably couldn’t make it back alive. The Warthog’s slow speed, so valuable when supporting troops on the ground, could have easily turned the entire affair into a suicide mission.

While the exact specifics are classified, a B-61 bomb can likely create a fireball almost a mile wide, according to data from nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap Website.

The approximate radius of the air blast from the weapon going off—where “most residential buildings collapse, injuries are universal [and] fatalities are widespread”—would extend more than three miles from ground zero, Wellerstein’s site adds.

Fast-moving fighter jets would have trouble escaping the aftermath of these massive explosions. On a nuclear mission, the Air Force expected its fighter pilots to fly toward their targets at altitudes greater than 30,000 feet before lobbing bombs at the enemy.

With the bombs flying in an upward arc onto the target, the method would hopefully give the aircraft enough time to fly clear of the blast. But it’d still be a close call. The slower A-10s probably wouldn’t make it.

“The fact that F-15E Strike Eagles and other fighters would have had difficulty egressing [the area] after nuclear delivery indicates that any A-10 using nuclear weapons would not have survived,” Laslie says. “I just don’t think any nuclear delivery profile would have been sufficient for an A-10.”

The A-10 pilots would have had to hope for the best. But weapons fitted with a timed fuze might have bought just enough time for the Warthogs to get away from the impact site.

“Here’s one possibility … a last-ditch mission profile intended to blunt a Warsaw Pact breakthrough along the German border,” the Air Force officer suggests as one reason for sending the Warthogs on a nuclear mission.

Needless to say, the Air Force didn’t recommend strapping atomic weapons to the A-10s. Nor is there any record that the Air Force considered the idea ever again.

“I do not think I ever heard this capability discussed,” the former A-10 pilot says. “My guess is that we would have had a good laugh at the idea had it ever come up.”

The consensus appears to be that lobbing nuclear bombs is one thing the venerable Warthogs can’t—and shouldn’t—do.

This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurope