Could Battleships Wage War in 2019? (Or Should You Turn on the History Channel?)

Robert Farley

Key Point: Battleships have disadvantages and advantages in modern warfare, so it's not wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Is it time to bring back the battleship? 

For decades, naval architects have concentrated on building ships that, by the standards of the World Wars, are remarkably brittle. These ships can deal punishment at much greater ranges than their early 20th century counterparts, but they can’t take a hit. Is it time to reconsider this strategy, and once again build protected ships? This article examines how these trends came about, and what might change in the future.

Why We Build Big Ships

The label “battleship” emerges from the older “ship of the line” formulation, in the sense that a navy’s largest ships participated in the “line of battle” formation that allowed them to bring their broadsides to bear on an opposing line. After the development of ironclad warships, the “battle ship” diverged from the armored cruiser based on expectations of usage; “battleships” were expected to fight enemy “battleships.” The modern battleship form settled around 1890, with the British Royal Sovereign class. These ships displaced about 15,000 tons, with two heavy guns each in turrets fore and aft, and steel armor. The rest of the navies of the world adopted these basic design parameters, which provided a ship that could both deal out and absorb punishment. The process of ensuring survivability was simplified, in these early battleships, by the predictability of the threat. The most likely vector of attack in the late 1890s came from large naval artillery carried by other ships, and consequently protective schemes could concentrate on that threat.

The limitations of fire control meant that lethality didn’t increase much with size; HMS Lord Nelson, laid down 15 years later, displaced only 2000 tons more.  On roughly the same size hull, however, HMS Dreadnought took advantage of a number of innovations developed in the ensuing years, and with ten heavy guns became a far more lethal platform at roughly similar cost to previous ships. As a consequence, the survivability of smaller battleships dropped substantially, even against naval artillery.

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