Why Did the U.S. Navy Stop Building Battleships?
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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
Over the years it’s become commonplace for writers to sex up their descriptions of guided-missile destroyer (DDG) Zumwalt, the U.S. Navy’s newest surface combatant. Commentators of such leanings depict the ultra-high-tech DDG-1000 as a battleship. Better yet, it’s a “stealth battleship”—a fit subject for sci-fi!
Not so. And getting the nomenclature right matters: calling a man-of-war a battleship conjures up images in the popular mind of thickly armored dreadnoughts bristling with big guns blazing away at one another on the high seas, pummeling shore targets in Normandy or Kuwait, or belching smoke and flame after Nagumo’s warplanes struck at Pearl Harbor.
Such images mislead. Battleships were multi-mission warships capable of engaging enemy surface navies, fighting off swarms of propeller-driven aircraft, or pounding hostile beaches with gunfire. The DDG-1000 is a gee-whiz but modestly armed surface combatant optimized for one mission: shore bombardment. The shoe just doesn’t fit.
Now, there’s no problem affixing the label stealth to Zumwalt, which at present is undergoing its first round of sea trials off the New England coast. Shipbuilders went to elaborate lengths to disguise the ship from radar detection. Radar emits electromagnetic energy to search out, track and target ships and aircraft. It shouts, then listens for an echo from hulls or airframes—much as sightseers shout and listen when visiting the Grand Canyon.
Quieting the echo is the trick. This 15,000-ton behemoth displaces half-again as much as a Ticonderoga-class cruiser yet reportedly has just one-fiftieth the radar cross-section of the fleet’s workhorse Arleigh Burke-class DDGs. While not entirely undetectable, DDG-1000 will look like a fishing vessel or other small craft on enemy radar scopes—if it’s picked up at all. Blending into surface traffic is no mean feat for an outsized destroyer.
How did shipwrights pull this off? For one thing, the geometry of the DDG-1000’s hull, superstructure, and armaments deflects rather than reflects electromagnetic energy. Right angles and surfaces perpendicular to the axis of EM radiation bounce back energy—boosting an object’s radar signature. Accordingly, the DDG-1000 design includes few right angles. Everything slopes. And while radar antennae, smokestacks, and other fittings clutter the decks of conventional warships, such items are mostly concealed within Zumwalt’s hull or deckhouse. That accounts for the vessel’s clean, otherworldly look.
For another, radar-absorbent coatings slathered on the ship’s external surfaces muffle such radar returns as do occur. While hardly invisible to the naked eye, this big ship will prove hard to detect—let alone track or target—while cruising over the horizon.
If stealth is an accurate adjective, though, dubbing Zumwalt a battleship conveys false impressions. First of all, there’s the matter of linguistic hygiene. It’s all too common among laymen to use battleship as a generic term for any ship of war. Indeed, I got my start as a columnist in 2000 precisely because reporters took to labeling the destroyer USS Cole a battleship. An explosives-laden small craft struck that unfortunate vessel in Aden, blowing a massive hole in her side. How could that happen if Cole was a battleship? Battlewagons are ruggedly built, with vulnerable spaces sheathed in a foot or more of armor. They were built on the assumption that they would take a punch in a slugfest with enemy battleships.
Destroyers aren’t built on that assumption. Describing Cole as a battleship obscured a basic fact about modern warships. U.S. mariners try to bring down the “archer,” namely a hostile ship or warbird, before he lets fly his “arrow,” a torpedo or anti-ship missile. That’s because few ships are built to withstand battle damage. Crewmen call them “tin cans” for a reason: it’s easy to pierce an American ship’s sides should an enemy round evade the ship’s defenses. So it should have come as no surprise that a small craft packed with shaped-charge explosives could land a crushing blow against one of the U.S. Navy’s premier combatants. Again: calling things by their proper names constitutes the beginning of wisdom.
Second, those who portray Zumwalt as a dreadnought seem to be thinking of dreadnoughts not in their prime but in their age of senescence. This too blurs important facts. Aircraft carriers supplanted battleships as capital ships—the fleet’s heaviest and rangiest hitters—during World War II. Dreadnoughts found new life as auxiliary platforms. They pummeled enemy beaches during amphibious operations. They rendered escort duty, employing their secondary batteries to help screen carrier task forces against aerial attack.
The DDG-1000 is optimized for that sort of auxiliary duty. In particular, the vessel sports a couple of long-range guns optimized for bombarding foreign shores, along with eighty vertical launchers capable of lofting land-attack cruise missiles hundreds of miles inland. The vessel thus meets the navy’s need to supply offshore fire support to troops fighting in coastal areas. Gunfire support is a capability that lapsed when the [last battleship retired in 1992](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Missouri_(BB-63%29). In a narrow sense, then, it’s fitting to liken the Zumwalts to battlewagons.
But battleships never fully relinquished their multimission character. In their days of nautical supremacy, they dueled hostile battle fleets to determine who would command the sea. They then protected cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious craft that fanned out in large numbers to exploit maritime command. Dreadnoughts retained that primacy until the flattop and its air wing came into their own during World War II.
But they remained hard-hitting surface-warfare platforms even after being eclipsed. Carrier aviation didn’t render them obsolete. For example, the battleships Washington and South Dakota played a pivotal part in the naval battles off Guadalcanal in 1942. The Pearl Harbor fleet got some vengeance in a surface gun battle in Surigao Strait in 1944. Surigao Strait comprised part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s last major fleet action. Iowa-class battlewagons resumed their surface-warfare function during a short-lived revival during the 1980s and 1990s. Equipped with Harpoon and Tomahawk anti-ship missiles to complement their nine 16- and twelve 5-inch guns, they formed the core of surface action groups while also discharging shore-bombardment missions.
In short, battleships remained multimission vessels throughout their service lives—even after technological progress relegated them to secondary status. The Zumwalt is one-dimensional by contrast. Each ship is armed with two “advanced gun systems” capable of raining precision fire—albeit with lightweight projectiles compared to battleships’ 1,900- and 2,700-lb. rounds—on land targets some 83 nautical miles distant. Marines will welcome the backup.
It remains unclear, however, how capable the advanced gun will prove against enemy surface fleets. For example, a recent report from the Congressional Research Service pays tribute to the gun’s long-range land-attack projectiles but makes scant mention of how the DDG-1000 would fare in surface warfare. The gun’s manufacturer touts the weapon’s “highly-advanced gunfire capabilities for anti-surface warfare,” yet—like the ship’s other boosters—overwhelmingly emphasizes the littoral-combat mission. To date, then, surface action appears to be an afterthought for the DDG-1000s—unlike their dreadnought forebears. That’s another nuance masked by the moniker stealth battleship.
In that vein, it’s fair to say the DDG-1000 suffers from the same problem bedeviling the rest of the U.S. Navy surface fleet. Assume the advanced gun system eventually boasts the same range against warships it boasts against land targets, eighty-three nautical miles. Guns can disgorge a large volume of fire, to the tune of hundreds of rounds, compared to the ship’s eighty-round missile magazine. That’s good.
But it matters little if the ship never gets within range to fire its guns. However impressive for a gun, eighty-three nautical miles is only a fraction of, say, the range sported by China’s YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile. Currently being deployed aboard People’s Liberation Army Navy ships and subs, the YJ-18 can strike at targets 290 nautical miles distant. Nor, apparently, will the Zumwalts carry Harpoons, whose range falls short of the advanced gun system’s in any event.
Like the rest of the surface warships, then, the DDG-1000 will find itself sorely outranged by the missile-armed submarines, warplanes and surface combatants that comprise the core of naval fighting forces around the Eurasian perimeter. Chinese or Russian forces can blast away from beyond the reach of American guns or missiles. And if U.S. forces try to close the gap, they will do so under fire—fire that will enfeeble them on the way.
In that the DDG-1000’s plight does resemble the battleship’s plight after Pearl Harbor. It’s a heavy hitter whose reach is woefully short. Defense firms are developing new long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The U.S. Navy has experimented with repurposing land-attack cruise missiles for surface warfare—resurrecting a capability the leadership shortsightedly allowed to lapse after the Cold War.
Let’s get some long-range weaponry out there—pronto. No, the DDG-1000 isn’t a stealth battleship. But it should be. And—suitably armed—it could be.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College.
(This article first appeared last month and is being republished due to reader interest.)
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