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 Tōgō Heihachirō'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 Tōgō 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.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College
5 Best Aircraft Carriers:
Anyone who's tried to compare one piece of kit—ships, aircraft, weaponry of various types—to another will testify to how hard this chore is. Ranking aircraft carriers is no exception. Consulting the pages of Jane's Fighting Ships or Combat Fleets of the World sheds some light on the problem. For instance, a flattop whose innards house a nuclear propulsion plant boasts virtually unlimited cruising range, whereas a carrier powered by fossil fuels is tethered to its fuel source. As Alfred Thayer Mahan puts it, a conventional warship bereft of bases or a coterie of logistics ships is a "land bird" unable to fly far from home.
Or, size matters. The air wing—the complement of interceptors, attack planes and support aircraft that populate a carrier's decks—comprise its main battery or primary armament. The bigger the ship, the bigger the hangar and flight decks that accommodate the air wing.
Nor, as U.S. Navy carrier proponents like to point out, is the relationship between a carrier's tonnage and number of aircraft it can carry strictly linear. Consider two carriers that dominate headlines in Asia. Liaoning, the Chinese navy's refitted Soviet flattop, displaces about sixty-five thousand tons and sports twenty-six fixed-wing combat aircraft and twenty-four helicopters. Not bad. USS George Washington, however, tips the scales at around one hundred thousand tons but can operate some eighty-five to ninety aircraft.
And the disparity involves more than raw numbers of airframes. George Washington's warplanes are not just more numerous but generally more capable than their Chinese counterparts. U.S. flattops boast steam catapults to vault larger, heavier-laden aircraft into the wild blue. Less robust carriers use ski jumps to launch aircraft. That limits the size, fuel capacity, and weapons load—and thus the range, flight times and firepower—of their air wings. Larger, more capable carriers, then, can accommodate a larger, more capable, and changing mixes of aircraft with greater ease than their lesser brethren. Aircraft carriers' main batteries were modular before modular was cool.
And yet straight-up comparisons can mislead. The real litmus test for any man-of-war is its capacity to fulfill the missions for which it was built. In that sense George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, may not be "superior" to USS America, the U.S. Navy's latest amphibious helicopter carrier, or to Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force "helicopter destroyers"—a.k.a. light aircraft carriers—despite a far more lethal air wing and other material attributes. Nor do carriers meant to operate within range of shore-based fire support—tactical aircraft, anti-ship missiles—necessarily need to measure up to a Washington on a one-to-one basis. Land-based implements of sea power can be the great equalizer. Like any weapon system, then, a great carrier does the job for which it was designed superbly.
And lastly, there's no separating the weapon from its user. A fighting ship isn't just a hunk of steel but a symbiosis of crewmen and materiel. The finest aircraft carrier is one that's both well-suited to its missions and handled with skill and derring-do when and where it matters most. Those three indices—brute material capability, fitness for assigned missions, a zealous crew—are the indices for this utterly objective, completely indisputable list of the Top Five Aircraft Carriers of All Time.
5. USS Midway (CV-41):
Now a museum ship on the San Diego waterfront, Midway qualifies for this list less for great feats of arms than for longevity, and for being arguably history's most versatile warship. In all likelihood she was the most modified. Laid down during World War II, the flattop entered service just after the war. During the Cold War she received an angled flight deck, steam catapults, and other trappings befitting a supercarrier. Indeed, Midway's service spanned the entire Cold War, winding down after combat action against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991. Sheer endurance and flexibility entitles the old warhorse to a spot on this list.
4. USS Franklin (CV-13):
If Midway deserves a place mainly for technical reasons, the Essex-class carrier Franklin earns laurels for the resiliency of her hull and fortitude of her crew in battle. She was damaged in heavy fighting at Leyte Gulf in 1944. After refitting at Puget Sound Navy Yard, the flattop returned to the Western Pacific combat theater. In March 1945, having ventured closer to the Japanese home islands than any carrier to date, she fell under surprise assault by a single enemy dive bomber. Two semi-armor-piercing bombs penetrated her decks. The ensuing conflagration killed 724 and wounded 265, detonated ammunition below decks, and left the ship listing 13 degrees to starboard. One hundred six officers and 604 enlisted men remained on board voluntarily, bringing Franklin safely back to Pearl Harbor and thence to Brooklyn Navy Yard. Her gallantry in surviving such a pounding and returning to harbor merits the fourth position on this list.