Why Were These Battleships So Durable?

Why Were These Battleships So Durable?

What makes a ship robust in combat bolsters its lifespan and thus its long-term value to the fleet.


Here's What You Need to Remember: That vintage World War II dreadnoughts could play an important part in an ultramodern regional war reveals principles of ship design useful to fleet designers today.

Over three decades ago the battleship USS Wisconsin steamed out of Hampton Roads bound for the Persian Gulf. The battlewagon performed a variety of tasks once on-station that September, from querying passing merchant ships about contraband goods to refueling vessels with less capacious tanks to receiving mail and supplies by helicopter for onward transfer to the fleet. Diplomatic functions were routine. A congressional delegation flew out to tour the ship and meet the crew. General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put in an appearance, as did U.S. and allied dignitaries and military officers of all descriptions. Meanwhile, preparations for war proceeded apace. Operation Desert Shield was a busy time.


Many fine retrospectives on Desert Shield have appeared in recent weeks. They tend to go broad, reviewing grand themes relating to world politics and strategy. For fun let’s go narrow and look at naval architecture. That vintage World War II dreadnoughts could play an important part in an ultramodern regional war reveals principles of ship design useful to fleet designers today.

Now, battleships are far from the only hulls ever to be repurposed for new times and surroundings. In fact, the aircraft carrier USS Midway—a ship commissioned days after World War II that also deployed for combat duty against Iraq forty-five years later—is reputedly the most modified ship of war in history. Among other things, Midway was refitted with the now-familiar angled flight deck, which boosts a flattop’s ability to launch and recover aircraft at the same time while giving the flight deck a trapezoidal look compared to World War II carriers bearing straight rectangular decks. Its angled deck fitted Midway for air operations throughout the Cold War and a tad beyond.

That’s a successful design. What should naval architects incorporate into a design to guarantee its longevity amid change? Versatility should be their watchword. It’s possible to experiment with versatile hulls—subtracting, adding, or recombining sensors, weapons, and embarked aircraft to keep the ship combat-relevant in a variety of circumstances.

First of all, and most obviously, designers should equip vessels with capabilities likely to remain pertinent even as the martial seascape metamorphoses around them—as it will. Battleships were gunships. They sported mixed armaments, ranging from massive 16-inch main guns capable of flinging projectiles weighing the same as a VW Bug over twenty miles downrange, down to 5-inch guns for surface action, and anti-air duty at middle ranges, down to light anti-aircraft guns of various calibers.

Despite their lavish main and secondary gun batteries, Iowa-class battleships like Wisconsin underwent their first repurposing as soon as they made their debut. The Japanese carrier air raid on Pearl Harbor underlined how naval warfare had changed by 1941. Battleships brought heavy long-distance firepower to a gunfight; carriers brought ultra-long-range precision firepower in the form of bombers and torpedo planes equipped with guidance systems known as pilots.

It was hard for battleships to compete with this combination of aviation technology and airmanship. Seldom in the air age could a battlewagon get within reach of hostile capital ships to duke it out, the way naval strategists had long prescribed. Yet the Iowa-class vessels boasted massive anti-aircraft capability, along with propulsion plants that drove them through the water fast enough to keep up with carrier task forces. Their technical characteristics made them useful escort ships in the Pacific. They also found new life as gunfire-support ships. They would loiter offshore, showering Japanese-held islands with projectiles to soften up the defenders before U.S. Marine and Army troops risked amphibious landings. Wisconsin and Missouri reprised their role as shore-bombardment platforms in the Gulf.

So, principle #1: arm vessels with weaponry likely to remain relevant even if demoted to secondary standing by newfangled technology. Foresight is a virtue.

Second, physical space makes adaptation possible. When the Iowa class made its comeback from mothballs during the 1980s, shipyard workers stripped off four of ten 5-inch gun mounts to make room for the latest in gee-whiz weaponry. In the deck space freed up they installed launchers for sixteen Harpoon anti-ship missiles and armored box launchers housing thirty-two Tomahawk cruise missiles. That’s forty-eight rounds in total. In those halcyon days the Tomahawk featured an anti-shipping variant, the TASM, able to smite enemy shipping hundreds of miles away, along with its better-known land-attack variants. Guided missiles furnished the long-range precision hitting power missing during World War II—making battleships viable multi-mission platforms for prosecuting high-tech war against Iraq.

During World War II, moreover, Iowa-class dreadnoughts were equipped with launchers for seaplanes on the aftmost section of their main decks. Clearing away that infrastructure made room for a sizable flight deck (although not for a hangar). The battlewagons operated helicopters of all shapes and sizes, along with remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs)—rudimentary drones resembling big model airplanes that vaulted off the deck with a jet assist and were recovered upon their return in a net temporarily hoisted to snag them. Though unarmed, RPVs flew over the battlefield for reconnaissance and gunfire spotting purposes—sparing manned overwatch aircraft for more pressing missions.

Principle #2: a hull with ample exterior deck space and internal volume is an ideal candidate for plugging in and playing novel technologies.

Third, rugged construction abets longevity. Battleships—not to mention carriers like Midway—were stoutly built. Not only were their hulls sheathed in armor to help them withstand gun, bomb, and torpedo hits, their innards were constructed with resilience in mind. Redundancy was shipbuilders’ mantra, down in the engineering plant in particular. It was possible for engineers to reroute and cross-connect steam, water, fuel, and electricity along many pathways to skirt around damaged piping or wiring. Major pieces of hardware—pumps, generators, and so forth—had backups. Lose one in action, and the snipes started up another to compensate. This was a design philosophy centered on battle durability. But a welcome byproduct was a stalwartly constructed hull’s ability to stand the ravages of time.

Principle #3: what makes a ship robust in combat bolsters its lifespan and thus its long-term value to the fleet.

And fourth, a platform that exudes glamour and mystique has long-lasting political value alongside its military attributes. The other day a U.S. Air Force friend and I were jawboning about aviation enthusiasts’ love for the A-10 Warthog ground-attack plane. (He drew the analogy to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, another famed breed of Hogs.) Every time aviation officialdom tries to retire the A-10, a warplane of 1970s vintage, political support coalesces almost instantly and keeps the fleet flying. The same allure enshrouds battleships. From time to time, even today, battleship proponents—some in high places—clamor for them to return to service.

Why is that? Well, A-10s and Iowas are both brawlers. They can dish out punishment while taking a heavyweight counterpunch by virtue of thick armor. Battleships had their big guns; in effect the Warthog is an airborne Gatling gun. Both support troops on the ground, endearing them to soldiers and marines. Both have lore; people venerate historic planes and ships. And both radiate what one naval commentator calls “sex appeal.” Modern ships and planes conceal their sensors and weapons to reduce their radar signatures; the A-10 and Iowa class flaunt them. They look badass, and thus make an impression on everyman as well as military and political elites. By no means does style outweigh military performance. Shipwrights should take it into account nonetheless when drawing up blueprints for a new class.

Principle #4: the look of a ship matters for political reasons—and warships are political implements.

See? Historic ships can render good service even after easing into retirement as floating museums. Study the past for insight into the future.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters.