Here's What You Need To Remember: The USN prioritized slow, well-armored battleships that could operate together in a line-of-battle. Had the Navy paid more attention to European trends in shipbuilding, it might have gone ahead with the Lexington-class battlecruisers, which would have offered U.S. commanders in the Pacific better tools for fighting the war.
The United States Navy (USN) entered World War II when Japanese aircraft battered its fleet of old, slow battleships at Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, newer, faster ships would soon enter service, but the USN nevertheless fought the opening battles of the Pacific War without the support of fast battleships.
Had the U.S. Navy made different, better choices at the end of World War I, it might have begun World War II with battlecruisers that could have supported its fast carrier groups. The names of these ships might have been USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.
The Battlecruiser Turn
The United States Navy began to think about battlecruiser construction even before HMS Dreadnought and HMS Invincible entered service. Prior to the construction of Dreadnought, the USN had built two different kinds of capital ship. Large, slow, well-armored battleships would engage enemy battleships in set-piece battles, while large, fast, poorly armored cruisers would raid and disrupt enemy commerce. Although the battleships were starting to trend larger, at the turn of the century cruisers and battleships were of roughly the same size.
The Dreadnought Revolution changed the equation. Britain, Germany, and Japan began to build all-big-gun battleships, but supplemented these battleships with battlecruisers. Faster but less heavily armed and armored than their cousins, battlecruisers would serve as the scouting wing of the battlefleet, but could also operate in traditional “cruising” roles, such as commerce raiding or protection.
The United States, on the other hand, focused entirely on battleships. Not until the 1910s, when it became apparent that Japan was about to acquire four large, fast battlecruisers, did the USN begin to take the battlecruiser seriously. The first designs resembled modified Wyomings, dropping a turret or two and using the saved weight to increase speed. This superficially resembled British practice of the day, in which battleships and battlecruisers shared core design elements in order to save time and expense.
The Lexingtons were to be a class of six battlecruisers that would close the gap with the British, Germans, and especially the Japanese. The USN discarded the idea of simply modifying an existing battleship design (these designs were in flux, anyway) and started from scratch. The first efforts were . . . sketchy, resulting in huge, fast, poorly protected ships with bizarre configurations (one design had seven funnels). The 1916 design specified a displacement of thirty-five thousand tons, a speed of thirty-five knots, and main armament of ten fourteen-inch guns in four turrets.
Of course, reality intervened and the Lexingtons were delayed by war requirements. Fortunately, the Royal Navy offered its assistance, having won hard experience with battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland. British intervention resulted in significant design changes that increased the size of the ships but left them more well-balanced. The USN also opted to shift to sixteen-inch guns, which alleviated some design problems.
When wartime demand for escort craft receded, the United States Navy resumed construction of its battlefleet. The U.S. Navy decided to commit to construction of the Big Five, advanced Standard Type battleships that included two ships of the Tennessee class and three ships of the Colorado class. One of the Big Five was laid down in 1916, two in 1917, and two in 1919.
The USN finally began construction of the Lexingtons in the early 1920s. But by that time the strategic landscape had changed once again, as the United States entered the Washington Naval Treaty with Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. That story is well-known; the United States was granted the right to convert two capital ships into aircraft carriers, and it chose Lexington and Saratoga. Both ships served with distinction in the war; Lexington was sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea, and Saratoga in the post-war atomic bomb tests.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine a world in which the USN would have entered the Treaty system with two fewer battleships and two more battlecruisers. The Navy would likely have selected two other ships (for convenience sake Constellation and Constitution) for refit into aircraft carriers, so it’s unlikely that this would have changed the composition of the carrier fleet. The overall impact depends greatly on where in the design process the USN would have changed its mind. The earliest designs for the Lexingtons were a bit of a disaster and would have resulted in ships requiring immense modification during the interwar period. Still, even the early problematic designs would have left the USN in possession of two large, well-armed, fast battlecruisers. The Navy devoted immense resources to rebuilding its battleships in the interwar period anyway, and it’s possible that it could have remedied many of the core problems with the Lexingtons.
World War II
Of course, speed wouldn’t have helped the Lexingtons if they’d been trapped at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. But then the battlecruisers might not even have been in Pearl on December 7. The battlefleet remained home while the aircraft carriers conducted missions around the Pacific because the battleships could not keep up with the carriers. Had battlecruisers been available, they might well have escorted Enterprise and Lexington on their ferry and patrol missions, and thus missed the attack. Alternatively, the USN might have posted the ships to the Atlantic, as it did with the North Carolina class fast battleships when they entered service.
If the Lexington and Saratoga survived Pearl Harbor, they would have immediately offered the USN a capability that it did not have until mid-1942, and in some sense not until late 1943; a fast battleship that could provide high-speed carrier escort in engagements across the Pacific. The Lexingtons might have seen duty at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Doolittle Raid, offering anti-aircraft and anti-surface protection for USN carriers. In late 1942 they could have operated as the core of cruiser divisions in the Guadalcanal campaign.
In short, like their Japanese counterparts the Kongos, they would have been among the busiest ships in the fleet. Of course, the story of the Kongos ended badly, with two of the four sinking during the Guadalcanal campaign. The Lexingtons would also have sailed into harm’s way, and wouldn’t have enjoyed the protection of fast battleships like USS Washington or USS South Dakota. Of the seven battlecruisers to enter World War II, only one (HMS Renown) survived the conflict.
The USN prioritized slow, well-armored battleships that could operate together in a line-of-battle. Had the Navy paid more attention to European trends in shipbuilding, it might have gone ahead with the Lexington-class battlecruisers, which would have offered U.S. commanders in the Pacific better tools for fighting the war. The USN might well have lost the ships in the bitter, hard-fought battles of World War II, but this is always the potential fate for useful, in-demand warships. In light of wartime experience, where the utility of the fast battlecruisers of the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy became clear (notwithstanding the vulnerability of the ships), the USN ought to have prioritized battlecruisers over the advanced “Big Five” battleships that it began to build in 1917.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This article first appeared last year.