Key Point: No ship is unsinkable. Given the right range, enough missiles, and some surprise it could have been done.
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Could Saddam Hussein’s armed forces have sunk a U.S. Navy battleship?
That might seem like a question destined to launch an excursion into alt-history, but it was far from hypothetical to the 3,200 or so crewmen of the battleships USS Wisconsin and Missouri who squared off against Iraq in 1991. It was daily life, especially when they closed with hostile shorelines to render naval gunfire support to forces ashore—and thus came within striking reach of Iraqi defenses.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
My answer: yes.
In the abstract. Under ideal conditions.
If you ripped such an engagement out of its actual operational context, in other words, then yes, it was technically possible for Iraqi airmen or rocketeers to sink a dreadnought. One vessel can scarcely stand against the combined might of a nation. Yet sundering could-have-been events from reality reveals little of value. Iraqi prospects were farfetched when viewed in the real-world context of war in the Persian Gulf. Focusing that much martial throw weight against one surface combatant at the right time and place would have strained Iraqi capability—even if Saddam & Co. had made assaulting the American ironclads their uppermost priority.
(This first appeared earlier in the year.)
But first the hypotheticals. Events in the Gulf during the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran waged a brutal struggle for dominion, bore grim witness to the power of mine and missile warfare. During the 1987-1988 “tanker war,” the U.S. Navy organized convoys for Kuwaiti merchantmen reflagged under the Stars and Stripes. While they guarded against missile attack, escort ships took to trailing behind the tankers they were protecting, simply because the tankers’ massive hulls could withstand the blast from a sea mine far better than flimsily armored warships could. Protectors became the protected.
Such an underwater blast broke the back of the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts in April 1988. (I happened to be in engineering school when the heavy-lift ship bearing the frigate hove into the Narragansett Bay. That was a sobering sight for any newcomer to marine affairs.) Rudimentary sea mines would temporarily cripple the cruiser USS Princeton and the amphibious helicopter carrier USS Tripoli—a vessel comparable in size and tonnage to an Iowa-class battleship—during Desert Storm. Battleships certainly came within reach of mines during the Gulf War. I saw them floating nearby myself more than once. The amphibious task force of which Wisconsin and Missouri were part subsequently ventured into minefields off the Kuwaiti coast should coalition leaders order an amphibious assault.
Wouldn’t ruggedly armored battlewagons just shrug off mine strikes where their lightly built brethren could not? Maybe, maybe not. A floating sea mine would have struck at the waterline, where battleships’ armor exceeded a foot in thickness by far. Furthermore, an “armored box” encased vital innards such as the propulsion plants and fire-control plotting rooms. The shock from an explosion would have been transmitted to the hull and thence to the ship’s internals, and probably would have shaken loose some piping systems. Still, a vessel designed to withstand hammer blows from heavy-caliber gunnery would probably have ridden out such a strike with little lasting damage.
But the armored belt cladding the hull tapers to two inches along a battleship’s keel, all the way at the ship’s bottom. Shipwrights built the Iowa class with surface gunfights in mind, not influence mines moored to the seafloor and triggered by the noise or magnetic field of a passing enemy ship. Had such a mine floated up and detonated underneath Wisconsin or Missouri, it could well have punctured the hull. Moreover, it could have wrought havoc with the massive intakes that sucked in seawater to condense steam exhausted from the ship’s boilers—and in turn required engineers to shut down that plant.
Flooding and engineering casualties, then, would verge on certain following a strike from beneath. Still, battleships were built with redundant systems—four engineering plants, for instance—and with stout watertight bulkheads subdividing the hull to limit the spread of floodwaters. In all likelihood fire parties could have isolated any damage so the ship, rerouted power and vital fluids around the afflicted zone, and enabled the ship to carry on with its mission. Barring some extremely improbable event, such as many mines striking from beneath all at once, even influence mines posed little mortal danger.
What about anti-ship missiles? The missile age had its inception with the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat during the Six-Day War of 1967. An Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter jet loosed two Exocet missiles at the frigate USS Stark twenty years later, in May 1987, during the tanker war and less than four years before Desert Storm. The mistaken attack left Stark in grave peril and cost thirty-seven sailors their lives. It is far from unthinkable that a missile fired from one of Saddam’s warplanes, a shore battery, or one of the navy’s Osa patrol boats could have struck home against a battleship cruising offshore.
Indeed, Missouri had a close call with a couple of Iraqi Silkworms that February. What would have happened had one or both birds struck home? It depends on where they impacted. It may be commonplace to liken battleships to “castles of steel,” but the image misleads. No ship can tote heavy armor all around its exterior. It would be top-heavy, unstable, and unseaworthy. And even if weight and stability weren’t issues, no navy could afford to construct such a craft. Topside as on the hull, therefore, naval architects arranged armor plating to safeguard the most critical spaces, systems, and armaments.
Owing to these selective defenses, a missile probably wouldn’t have penetrated one of the main gun turrets, sheathed as they were in heavy plating. (Although a strike at just the right place might have wrecked the machinery a turret used to rotate toward its targets.) Nor would it have stood much chance of piercing the “citadel,” in effect a massive armored tube where the bridge watch team could take refuge in times of battle. But it might have done grievous harm to the lightly protected superstructure or to crucial topside systems like Tomahawk or Harpoon missile launchers, radars, or fire-control directors. Or, for that matter, a hit on one of the ship’s two smokestacks may have impeded or interrupted the inflow of combustion air to two of the ship’s four propulsion plants as well as the outflow of exhaust gases—impairing mobility and the electrical power supply.
This is far from trifling damage. It’s doubtful one or two Iraqi missile hits would have added up to a sinking-level catastrophe—but a ship can suffer a lot of ruin without sinking. The punch from two Silkworms surely would have degraded Missouri’s combat performance until the crew could make repairs. A “mission kill” that incapacitated the dreadnought for a time, in part or in whole, is far from unthinkable.
So much for the technical details of attacks pitting an individual missile or missiles against a battleship. Now factor in the operational context. It is fair to say that the Iraqi military could have sunk a battleship. Provided the defenders could detect, track, and target it. Provided they could dedicate ordnance to the engagement in massive quantities. Provided enough missiles could slip past the anti-missile defenses that swaddled a battleship, including not just its own close-in weapons and electronic-warfare suite but those of escort ships commonly assigned to ride “shotgun” with battleship surface action groups. And provided coalition aircraft failed to furnish effective air cover. In short, Iraqis could have inflicted massive harm had they concentrated all of their energies and resources on bludgeoning a battlewagon.
That’s a lot of provideds. How likely was such a confluence of events? Not very. Iraqi commanders had far more to worry about than gunfire and cruise missiles lofted shoreward by Missouri and Wisconsin. Aircraft carriers prowled the Gulf, striking deep inland in concert with U.S. Air Force and coalition aviators flying from airfields in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. They had to fret about U.S. Army and coalition ground forces staring at them across the front lines. Their plight almost elicits sympathy.
This dismal operational situation compelled Iraqis to disperse manpower and assets in an effort to defend Kuwait and southern Iraq from most points of the compass, not to mention from the surface and above. They simply couldn’t afford to allocate the resources and firepower to take out one hulking surface combatant, no matter how troublesome.
Apart from all that, it may be worth closing on a cultural point. Combatants came home from the Gulf with the eerie sense that we would have won even had we swapped our high-tech armory of ships, planes, sensors, and weaponry for Saddam’s lumbering, backward, largely Soviet-equipped force. Historian Victor Davis Hanson draws sweeping cultural contrasts in his book Carnage and Culture, ascribing Western military success against non-Western civilizations across the centuries to an ingrained lust for “shock battle.” Western fighting forces supposedly aim to annihilate their antagonists on the battlefield where combatants from other civilizations do not.
You need not embrace Hanson’s views in whole—Saudi forces, to name one of many non-Western coalition partners, acquitted themselves well in Desert Storm—to appreciate that a cultural chasm did separate the Iraqi armed forces from their foes. Part of the Iraqi military’s problem must have stemmed from its drawn-out bloodletting with Iran, still a recent memory when Saddam ordered the invasion of Kuwait. This was an exhausted and demoralized force. But the nature of Iraqi society and government must be largely responsible as well.
Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, and tyranny makes armed forces—or any institution, really—stupid.
A ruler like Saddam, who appoints himself generalissimo of the armed services and regards ideas that contradict his own as a threat, squelches the lively debate that constitutes the lifeblood of strategic thought. Had Saddam encouraged freethinking among his commanders instead of crushing it mercilessly, it’s possible Iraqis would have fared far better in 1991—and that the defenders of occupied Kuwait may have landed far more telling blows against coalition navies, including battleships, that menaced their maritime flank.
Alternative history is a pleasant diversion—and useful when it furnishes a reminder of timeless verities such as the need to size up prospective foes’ martial cultures as well as their arsenals.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.