America's (Almost) Super Battleships: 65,000 Tons of Terror
In the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy still expected to need huge, first rate battleships to fight the best that Japan and Germany had to offer. The North Carolina, South Dakota, and Iowa class battleships all involved design compromises. The Montanas, the last battleships designed by the U.S. Navy (USN), would not.
Origins of the Design:
The interwar system of naval treaties allowed the United States to restart battleship construction in the late 1930s. The first designs (the North Carolina and South Dakota classes) complied with the restrictions of the treaties, which limited battleship size to 35,000 tons. An escalator clause kicked in after Japan failed to renew its treaty obligations, allowing the construction of the 45,000 Iowa class, which would use the extra displacement to carry slightly heavier guns, and more importantly to add five knots of speed.
The fast, slim Iowas class ships, however, diverged from the historical practice in battleship construction in the United States. Unlike their counterparts in other countries, U.S. battleship admirals preferred to sacrifice speed for firepower and protection. The USN never built any battlecruisers (although it intended to do so after World War I), and initially expected its replacement battleships to sail at 23 knots, four knots slower than any foreign contemporary. The USN bumped that to 28 when it realized foreign navies were building ships that could make closer to 30 knots. The Iowas could make 33 knots (at least on paper) because the USN wanted battleships that could escort its new fast carriers.
The Montanas didn’t drop all the way back to 23, but they did represent a step back to the precedent established by the North Carolina and South Dakota classes. They displaced 18,000 tons more than the Iowas, but spent that displacement on armor and main battery, rather than on speed. Crucially, the USN made the decision to build them too large to pass through the Panama Canal, which Japanese designers of the time had believed was a hard ceiling on the size of U.S. battleships.
The five names selected were Montana, Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, and Louisiana. Of these, the last four recycled names from pre-dreadnought battleships, all of which had been scrapped after World War I. The first, Montana, recycled a name that was originally intended for the first South Dakota class of battleships, which were cancelled in the wake of the Washington Naval Treaty. Apart from Hawaii, Montana is the only state never to have an operational battleship named in its honor.
How They Stacked Up:
In appearance the Montanas were very similar to the Iowa class, with the biggest visible differences coming in size and main armament. The Montanas would have carried 12 16”/50 guns in four triple turrets, and would have displaced about 65,000 tons. They were to carry 16” belt armor and 9” deck armor, a substantial increase on the Iowas. However, they could only make 28 knots. The secondary armament was largely the same as the Iowas (and the preceding battleship classes), but with more deck space they could eventually have carried a heavier anti-aircraft armament.
The Montanas would have outclassed anything the British, French, or Italians had even conceived of building. The most obvious opponent for the Montanas were the Japanese Yamatos. The Montanas would have been slightly faster than the Yamatos, with a much heavier broadside. The 16”/50 weapons had greater penetrating power than the Japanese 18.1” gun, giving the U.S. ships a significant advantage. Advances in radar fire control and range finding would also have worked to the benefit of the U.S. ships.
However, it’s worth noting that the Yamatos commissioned in 1942, before the scheduled keel laying of Montana. Even given the exceptionally fast construction schedule of U.S. warships in World War II, Montana would have entered service some three years after the Yamatos, make comparison imprecise. Moreover, the notional follow-on battleships (“Super Yamato” and “Super Duper Yamato,” as they are colloquially known) would have substantially exceeded the Montanas in size and armament.
Apart from the Japanese, the only serious competitors in the “super-battleship” weight class were the Soviet Sovetsky Soyuz class, and the German H-39 class. Both of these types were nearly as large as the American and Japanese ships, and carried 16” guns. However, both the Soviet and German designs had major deficiencies, and in the Soviet case industrial shortcomings meant that the ships would have suffered from big operational problems. In any case, the arrival of war led to the cancellation of every super-battleship class except for the first two Yamatos.
The Decision Not to Build:
By mid-1942, U.S. naval authorities concluded that aircraft carriers would contribute more to victory in the Pacific than battleships. The battleships currently under construction (six of the Iowa class, closely following the four South Dakotas) would provide an ample insurance policy against Japanese battleship construction, while also serving as an effective carrier escort force.