Why the U.S. Navy Sold Old Battleships But Never Aircraft Carriers

Iowa-Class

Why the U.S. Navy Sold Old Battleships But Never Aircraft Carriers

The United States has always been cautious of selling its capital ships to foreign navies, yet, both of its retired Mississippi-class battleships – the last pre-dreadnought battle wagons designed for the U.S. Navy – ended their career in service with the Hellenic Navy.

 

Summary: Historically, the U.S. has been cautious about transferring its major naval assets to foreign nations like aircraft carriers and battleships, unlike Great Britain, which sold warships to South American countries in the late 19th century.

Batteships

 

-Post-WWII, the U.S. either scrapped or sold only specific types of ships, like the Brooklyn-class cruisers. Notably, the USS Phoenix, transferred to Argentina and later sunk in the Falklands War, exemplifies the cautious approach to selling sensitive naval technology.

-This policy extended to aircraft carriers, with none sold post-war due to concerns about exposing technological secrets. However, the U.S. missed potential strategic opportunities, such as enhancing ties with India by transferring the USS Kitty Hawk, which could have promoted interoperability and strengthened military relationships in the Indo-Pacific region.

USS Phoenix to Kitty Hawk: The Evolution of U.S. Naval Ship Transfers

Prior to the First World War, Great Britain's shipyards built warships for foreign nations – and that included numerous South American countries, which led to a naval arms race in the late 19th century. By contrast, the United States only sold off its former warships following the Second World War.

During the conflict, more than 1,400 warships were built for the United States Navy, and while many were sent to scrapyards and came back as "millions of razor blades," others saw service in foreign navies. That included the Brooklyn-class light cruiser USS Phoenix (CL-46), which was transferred to Argentina. Renamed ARA General Belgrano, she was sunk during the Falklands War in 1982 – the largest warship sank in combat since the Second World War until Russia's Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva in 2022.

What is also notable is that Brooklyn-class cruisers were also among the largest warships that the U.S. Navy allowed to be sold or transferred to another power following World War II. Not a single one of the 105 aircraft carriers built for the U.S. Navy was offered for sale, nor were any of the 23 battleships that saw service in WWII sold or transferred to another nation. Many simply rotted away in the reserve fleet for years instead!

Past Battleship Transfers

The United States has always been cautious of selling its capital ships to foreign navies, yet, both of its retired Mississippi-class battleships – the last pre-dreadnought battle wagons designed for the U.S. Navy – ended their career in service with the Hellenic Navy.

The quality and technology of the weaponry and armor were first-rate when the ships were designed, and included a variety of main, intermediate, secondary, and tertiary gun sizes in a pre-dreadnought configuration. However, naval advancement in the era was so great that the warships were obsolete before they were completed in 1905.

While both took part in U.S. military interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean, including landing United States Marines and supporting early air operations, they are now remembered for being the only sale of functional U.S. battleships to a foreign government.

After less than a decade in service with the U.S. Navy, in 1914, both the USS Mississippi (BB-23) and USS Idaho (BB-24) were sold to Greece, being renamed Kilkis and Lemnos – the former becoming the flagship of the Hellenic Navy. The vessels were latter employed as a training ship and barracks ship respectively and by German aircraft in 1941 during the invasion of Greece.

Apart from the U.S. Navy battleships at Pearl Harbor, these were the only American-made battle wagons sunk during the Second World War.

No U.S. Aircraft Carriers Have Been Sold

Though the U.S. Navy opted not to sell any of its World War II carriers to another nation, several Soviet, French, and British carriers did see later service with other nations.

Aircraft Carrier

Even in the Cold War and later, retired carriers were sold off – and likely sometimes with a bit of buyer's remorse, as India probably regrets buying the former Admiral Gorshkov from Russia. Likewise, Brazil had to deal with the saga of the Sao Paulo, which was built for the French Marine Nationale as the Foch. It was finally scuttled in the Atlantic last year after Turkey refused to allow the toxic-filled flattop to be scrapped by a Turkish shipbreaker.

The U.S. Navy hasn't sold any carriers over concerns that it could give insight into current designs. But perhaps there were missed opportunities.

As previously reported, in 2022, the United States Navy sold its two final conventionally-powered carriers USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) for just a penny each. Likewise, in 2013, the United States Navy sold the USS Forrestal (CV-59) supercarrier for a single penny to All Star Metals in Brownsville, Texas; while her sister ship USS Saratoga (CV-60) was sold for the same sum to ESCO Marine.

As CV-63 was being readied for retirement, rumors circulated in early 2008 that the U.S. Navy was seeking to sell – possibly even donate – USS Kitty Hawk to India. The rumors picked up traction as talks stalled between Moscow and New Delhi over the sale of the former's Kiev-class aircraft cruiser Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov.

In the end, India did buy the Russian warship, which was renamed INS Vikramaditya , but it was hardly a good deal for India, which reportedly paid $2.3 billion. Even with a refurbishment, the warship has been plagued with severe problems and has suffered through three fires that put into question its reliability. Yet, for Moscow, it was a very good deal – as in addition to unloading a warship that would have as likely been scrapped, it tied the Indian Navy to Russian-made aircraft that operated from the flattop.

It certainly should be seen as a missed opportunity for Washington. The United States Navy made virtually nothing from selling the USS Kitty Hawk, and it likely cost millions to ready the vessel for the scrappers.

Aircraft Carrier

More importantly, the Indian Navy had been eyeing the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, which has long been touted as the premier carrier aircraft in the service today, while the USS Kitty Hawk operated the aircraft for years. In many ways, the United States could have taken a cue from the "razor blade business model" – as in "give away" the carrier, which wasn't worth anything, and then sell India the hardware to use with it.

Beyond the missed business opportunity, selling – even donating – the carrier to New Delhi would have helped tie the Indian Navy closer to Washington and could have allowed it to have a carrier on par with anything in service with the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Instead, the Kitty Hawk may end up like those WWII warships, and only come back as actual razor blades!

Again, it likely came down to fears over what New Delhi, and perhaps even Moscow or Beijing, could have learned about in-service U.S. carriers. But it still seems like a missed opportunity that could have forged closer ties with India while effectively countering China in the Indo-Pacific.

Battleship

Finally, another consideration could be that just perhaps, the U.S. didn't want its naval heritage linked in any way to foreign navies. The USS Mississippi, USS Idaho, and USS Phoenix serve as reminders of where retired U.S. warships could end up. 

Author Experience and Expertise: Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

You can email the author: [email protected].

All images are Creative Commons.