Bombs Away: Study the Battleship to Save the Aircraft Carrier

Why looking to the past could prolong the relevance of America's big-deck aircraft carriers amid increasingly menacing surroundings.

How can the U.S. Navy prolong the relevance of its big-deck aircraft carriers amid increasingly menacing surroundings? In part, through hindsight. The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor rudely evicted dreadnought battleships from their perch atop the navy's pecking order. The day of the aircraft carrier had arrived. And yet battleships found new life for a time, pressed into service for secondary but vital functions. That could be the flattop's eventual fate as well. Naval-aviation proponents may find insights from battleship history discomfiting. They should study them nonetheless.

Amphibious operations, not sea fights against enemy surface fleets, gave battleships renewed purpose after Pearl Harbor. Dreadnoughts took station off the Solomon Islands scant months later, pummeling Japanese Army positions to support U.S. Marines embattled on Guadalcanal. The opposed landing is among the most grueling missions amphibian forces can undertake. Debarking from amphibious transports, making the transit from ship to shore in fragile landing craft, and clawing their way onto the beach under fire constitute the most delicate part of the endeavor.

Carl von Clausewitz pronounces defense the stronger form of war. Never is this more true than in amphibious combat. Defenders strew obstacles along the beaches, position gun emplacements to rake landing craft approaching through the surf and make things hellish while soldiers and marines are at their most vulnerable. Nor is island warfare any cakewalk, even after the force is ashore. Softening entrenched enemy defenses, then, is imperative both before sea-to-shore movement commences and after the fighting moves inland.

Battlewagons rendered yeoman service as shore-bombardment platforms throughout World War II. Reactivated Iowa-class battleships, moreover, saw action during the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War. Nor is this purely an Asian enterprise. Indeed, this Friday marks seventy years since swarms of Allied ships descended on the French coast. Troops stormed the Normandy beaches in history's most epic opposed landing. Some 10,800 Allied combat aircraft dominated the skies, flying from airfields in nearby Britain. Battlewagons, cruisers, and destroyers cruising offshore rained gunfire on German strongpoints.

To deadly effect. Battleship gun rounds are comparable in weight to a Volkswagen Bug. Imagine flying economy cars exploding in your midst and you get the idea. So lethal was Allied naval gunfire that Desert Fox Erwin Rommel informed his Führer that "no operation of any kind is possible in the area commanded by this rapid-fire artillery." Quite a testament coming from one of history's great commanders.

And yet furnishing fire support was quite a comedown in status for the battlewagon, once the pride of navies from London to Washington to Tokyo. Seafarers reared on the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett assumed fleets of "capital ships"—battleships escorted by their lighter, but still-heavily-gunned, thickly armored brethren—would duel for maritime supremacy at the outbreak of war. By sinking or incapacitating an enemy battle fleet, the navy would secure the blessings of "command of the sea." That meant virtually unfettered freedom to blockade enemy shores, assail enemy merchantmen, or project power ashore.

The battleship once performed the glitziest of missions, but Pearl Harbor demoted it to secondary, unglamorous duty. Ships built to withstand hits from exploding VWs could venture within reach of shore-based enemy defenses—artillery, tactical aircraft, and the like—with good prospects of survival. And commanders could risk them with impunity. If the aircraft carrier was now the centerpiece of naval warfare, it was imperative to conserve flattops for future actions. After December 7, by contrast, the dreadnought was a wasting asset searching for a mission.

So why not send these vessels into harm's way? Once dethroned from the battle line, in short, battleships became expendable assets. In so doing they became ground-pounders' favorite ships. Therein lies wisdom. Herewith, are five lessons from the battleships' twilight years, applied to today's high-tech, access-denial/area-denial age:

Extend striking reach: As noted before, modernized battleships saw action in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. But these were relatively permissive surroundings where few defenders could do serious damage to armored vessels. More forbidding settings might have told another story. To be sure, battleship guns boasted extravagant range by gunnery standards. They could send rounds over twenty miles downrange. But that's short range for today's speedy attack aircraft and antiship missiles. Closing in on enemy coastlines, perversely, compresses the time available to ward off attack. That would render a battleship's staying power doubtful despite its ability to take a punch. Boosting the range of a ship's main armament, it seems, is critical to survival in this age of gee-whiz antiship weaponry. The farther away from enemy countermeasures, the better a man-of-war's prospects for staying alive—and accomplishing its goals.

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