Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Re-Emergence of the Battle Ship Pt 1

HMS Hood coming out of Rosyth
We all love those pictures from the "good old days' watching the Grand Fleet sail out under the Forth Bridge with those massive guns gleaming. For more that 50 years that is all they have been, old pictures. Battle ship's don't form a part of any one's navy today. Even the US Navy that prides itself on not just keeping but building even more cold war relics does not have a single battle ship in its fleet.

However a raft of new technologies coming in over the next 10 years may see the re-emergence of the battle ship. The battle ship may even serve to replace the aircraft carrier as the main surface combatant in the second part of the 21st centuary in the same way the aircraft carrier replaced the Dreadnoughts during World War Two.

Lessons from History

HMS Dreadnought
The battle ship of the Twentieth Century stemmed from HMS Dreadnought. The ship was so influential that subsequent classes were named for it. Dreadnought was built on lessons learned from the Russian Japanese War of 1905. It was shown that the ships with the larger calibre guns could out range the other vessels and so engage at ranges that kept them safe.

Inevitably these lessons once applied to other navy's lead to a naval race pitting ever larger calibre guns against each other. The bigger the gun the bigger the vessel required to carry them. In 1906 when Dreadnought was launched she carried ten 12 inch guns. She displaced 18,000 tonnes and could travel at 21 knts. Built just 30 years later the Yamato Class displaced 70,000 tonnes and carried nine 18 inch guns with a top speed of 27 knts.

Yamato Biggest Battle Ship Ever Built

The Demise of the big gun battle ship

The battle ship's demise was caused by three factors:

Aircraft Carriers- During the Second World War aircraft carriers replaced battle ship as the main strike platform of the fleet. Battle Ships were limited to engagements at 20-30 miles, where as carriers could strike enemy fleets at ranges of 300 miles. Eventually this range would stretch to over 700 miles with the advent of modern jets.

Price- Late model battleships represented massive investments by nations. Their  huge gun's, massive engines and exquisite armour took years to build and cost millions of dollars.

Missiles- Missiles replaced guns as the main weapon of surface combatants. This meant a small corvette or OPV could carry the same hitting power as a battle ship. This made it impossible to justify the expense of any form of new build battleship.

While battle ships were supplanted by aircraft carriers during and after the second world war this was not to say they were of no use. The US Navy kept it's four Iowa Class Battle Ships in service until 1991, forty years after they entered service. A longer service life than many of the fleet carriers of WWII. Their main purpose post WWII was land based power projection. There massive 16 inch guns could out gun an aircraft carrier close into shore. They were also fitted with Tomahawk missiles for deep strike and harpoon for anti ship battles. There huge size and thick armour made them all but immune to sea skimming sub sonic anti ship missiles. This meant they could travel close to shore to carry out shore bombardment with little fear of land based batteries or small boats. However at the end of their service life there was no budget or appetite for replacing the Iowa's. They left service and their role of shore bombardment in support of Marines was not replaced.

New advances in technology may see battle ship re introduced into blue water navy's in the next 10 to 20 years. Also the aircraft carrier is exhibiting many similar problems to the big gun battle ship in the 1940's.


There is a myriad of new defensive and offensive technology coming out which will make battle ships not only feasible as carrier replacements but actually more capable and cost effective.

Rail Gun from BAE

Rail Gun's- While rail guns have been the holly grail of naval weaponry for more than 50 years modern super conductors are beginning to make them a reality. The US Navy already has plans to put Rail Gun's into the Zumwalt Destroyers once available. These guns are intended to engage targets at up to 1,000 miles. Rounds can also be guided onto target's using smart munitions technology such as Excalibur. Importantly these type of munitions are cheap in comparison to missles or bombs dropped by aircraft. They will be small with no exhaust trail travelling at transonic speeds and almost impossible to guard against.

Lasers- While unlikely to be used as offensive weapons they will soon begin to make their debut as defensive weapons. Plans are already afoot to replace the RAM and Phalanx CIWS with a solid state free electron beam laser. Anti ship missles and aircraft are unlikely to every fly at sea level of speeds in excess of Mach 2-3. With a defensive system that can travel at the speed of light even mach 3 seems a little slow. It would be like the Swordfish bombers of the 1930's travelling at 90 miles an hour trying to Torpedo a Type 23 frigate with Sea Wolf. Lasers may give warships an immunity from air attack in the future. If aircraft can't attack ships then it makes carriers look expensive and of little use beyond long range reconnaissance.

Raytheon Laser CIWS has already shot down UAV's

Sensors- New phased array radars as well as future sensors such as LIDAR (Laser Radar) may also make it increasingly difficult for even stealthy aircraft to attack ship's.

UAV's- Unmanned Ariel Vehicles are small and relativley cheap to build. They don't need large supper carriers to launch them. They can fly for thousands of miles and remain on station. These can effectively give the fleet forward deployed eyes and ears allowing a battle ship with long range rail guns to engage targets well over the horizon.

Satellites- While satellites have been around for a long time they have typically not been avalable to battle field commanders in real time. However as the new generation of satellites become cheaper, smaller and more capable ship's at sea may be able to use targeting data provided by them. Again a long range rail gun using data supplied by satellites would be an awesome force to recon with. Far more deadly that an Anti Ship Ballistic Missile.

Armour- Armour has always been the key to the battle ships defence. With modern advances such as Carbon Nanotubes and Kevlar we may once again see a return to heavy armour being incorporated in war ship design. Also Innovative designs such as water armour might allow us to start thinking again of warships that can take multiple hits and keep fighting.

Missiles- Missiles are becoming more advanced. Giving a warship the ability to strike with precision and at long range against land targets. Factor in loitering munitions and a large warship can have almost the same strike capability as a carrier for a fraction of the cost.


Zumwalt Class Destroyer will eventually recieve Rail Guns

Carriers were once considered the cheaper alternative to battle ships. However using new US Aircraft Carriers as an example we can see the Carrier will cost $10-$15 billion, it's air group may cost $20-$25 billion and it's escorts will weigh in at around $10-$12 billion. That is anything up to a cost of $52 billion. Not to mention the running costs for the vessels and the roughly 6-7,000 sailors required to man them. At present there are no battle ship's being planned however the new Zumwalt Class Destroyers are similar to what we might envisage and they come in at $3 billion. They require no escort and no air group to support them. They also have a relativley small crew of just 200 or so.


If rail guns work then there is one thing we can be sure of. Vessels with larger rail guns and greater electrical capacity will be able to fire larger shells at longer distances than smaller ships with smaller guns. As with the Dreadnoughts this will likley lead to ever larger and larger vessels. These vessel will be far more able to defend themselves aginst surface and air threats with new missles and lasers.

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