In the provocative spirit of boyish charms and youthful inexperience, allow me to suggest an idea that is sure to boil your blood and sizzle your sailor soul. The Iowa class battleship is NOT the greatest battleship in American naval history.
Heresy you say? To many Americans, naval history began the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Most Americans know little about Lord Nelson and to many worldly American travelers, Trafalgar is a square in London where the protesters demonstrate. Stephen Decatur has become a footnote in American history, even though forty-six communities in the United States have been named after him. History has a way of shaping perceptions, and the emphasis of WWII history in the American education system explains why the term battleship calls forth the image posted on the right in our minds.
When one even uses the term battleship, the mind is filled with the strength of the nine 16″ guns, the mass of armor plate, the speed of a race horse, and the glory of victory in the fall of ’45. The word has become an icon that represents naval strength, and in the minds of most Americans an image of American military power.
But the term battleship predates World War II and has a meaning that transcends the iconic image of American naval supremacy. “Battleship” was a word coined around 1794 and is a shortened form of the phase “Line of battle ship”. The term became a description given to the age of sail ships-of-the-line in the Royal Navy and later came into formal usage during the late 1880s to describe the new type of Ironclad ships produced at that time. By the time naval scholars and strategists like Julian Corbett and Alfred Thayer Mahan began writing historical and strategic observations about the Age of Sail period, the term battleship had been adopted and thus etched into the rhetoric of naval conversation.
More important than the history of the term was the nature of the ship the term defined. In 1677 the Secretary to the Admiralty Samuel Pepys developed a ship rating system for administrative and military use within the Royal Navy. The rating system was used to determine the size of crew needed on a ship based on the number and weight of the guns on the warship. Revised a half dozen times over a period of 150 years, the rating system as it was during the Napoleonic Wars became the most widely used system by scholars and historians. Below is that rating system, from Wikipedia:
|Type||Rate||Guns||Gun decks||Men||Displacement in tonnes|
|Ship of the line||1st Rate||100 to 120||3||850 to 875||2,500|
|2nd Rate||90 to 98||3||700 to 750||about 2,200|
|3rd Rate||64 to 80||2||500 to 650||1,750|
|4th Rate||48 to 60||2||320 to 420||about 1,000|
|Frigate||5th Rate||32 to 44||1 or 2||200 to 300||700 to 1,450|
|6th Rate||20 to 28||1||140 to 200||450 to 550|
|Sloop-of-war||Unrated||16 to 18||1||90 to 125||380|
|Gun-brig or Cutter||6 to 14||1||5 to 25||220|
Observe the ratings system is simple with only a single metric: guns. The thickness of the armor, ship survivability standards, the speed of the vessel, the volume of space the ship had, the crew size, the displacement of the vessel, and any additional technologies carried by the vessel had no influence whatsoever on this simple system of rating surface combatants. The only standard that mattered was offensive capability as defined by the prominent weapon system of the era.
I believe a similar standard can be applied today for surface combatants to suggest the relevant strength of a naval vessel in context for comparison with another naval vessel in the current naval era. I also believe a modern rating system allows naval scholars to place today’s vessels in context for comparison during strategic discussions across different naval era’s.
A few years ago Bob Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments produced a modern rating system for warships (PDF), and with his permission I have adopted this modern rating system when discussing surface combatant force structure in the context of strategy. In the spirit of Samuel Pepys, Bob Work classifies ships in this modern rating system by the single standard of the prominent weapon system in the modern era: the precision guided missile.
Bob Work’s Battle Force Missile Ship Rating System For Surface Combatants
First-rate battle force ships (battleships): Ships armed more than 100 battle force VLS cells, and/or more than 100 battle force missiles;
Second-rate battleships: Ships armed with 90-99 battle force VLS cells, and/or 90-99 battle force missiles;
Third-rate battleships: Ships armed with 60-89 battle force VLS cells, and/or 61-89 battle force missiles;
Fourth-rate battleships/frigates: Ships armed with 48-59 battle force VLS cells, and/or 48-60 battle force missiles;
Fifth-rate frigates: Ships armed with 20-47 battle force VLS cells, and/or 20-47 battle force missiles;
Sixth-rate frigates: Ships designed specifically for the protection of shipping role, armed with either VLS cells or legacy missile systems, and armed with local air defense SAMs and anti-submarine and anti-ship cruise missiles for convoy defense; and
Unrated Flotilla: Warships optimized for a single role, usually either anti-submarine or anti-surface warfare, or for general-purpose naval missions. The distinguishing feature of these ships is that they carry only terminal missile defenses—either in the form of rapid fire guns or short-range terminal defense SAMs.
The following range break points are used to distinguish between SAMs: area air defense SAMs have ranges greater than 48 kilometers (km; approximately 30 miles); local air defense SAMs have ranges between 16 and 48 km (10-30 miles); and a terminal defense SAM has an effective range of less than 16 km (10 miles).
A “battle force missile” is a missile approximately 13 inches in diameter or greater, which covers area SAMs, ASCMs, anti-submarine rockets, and land attack missiles. As PVLS is 28 inches in diameter, for the time being PVLS cells count as 1.5 battle force missiles for purposes of highlighting the combat power of ships with PVLS. Under those terms, the DDG-1000 would be a first rate battle force ship with 120 battle force missiles. AGS and other weapon systems are not rated at this time. Under this model, missiles like ESSM and PAMS do not count towards a “battle force missile.”
So let us apply the rating system, shall we?
There are currently 23 first-rate battleships today including the 22 Ticonderoga (CG-52) class in the US Navy and the Russian nuclear powered Peter the Great. The US Ticonderoga (CG 52) class have 128 strike length VLS cells, six of which are not operational, and 8 Harpoon missiles for a total of 130 battle force missiles. The Russian Peter the Great has twelve, eight-cell revolver VLS launchers, 20 SS-N-19 anti-ship missiles, and 20 SS-N-16 anti-submarine missiles for a total of 136 battle force missiles.
The Japanese Atago class has 90 strike length VLS cells (1×61-cell and 1×29-cell) and 8 Type 90 (SSM-1B) missiles scoring it as a second-rate battleship.
While this is all interesting, I am sure you are wondering why I am claiming how the Iowa class battleship is NOT the greatest battleship in American naval history. The reason is because I believe the Arleigh Burke class second-rate battleship is by far and away the greatest battleship in American naval history… and the numbers suggest it.
To put the Arleigh Burke class into perspective, if the Navy builds 8 more as is currently being discussed, DDG-123 commissioned around 2022 would be expected to serve in the US Navy until 2062 to meet a 40 year service life, meaning the entire Arleigh Burke class would be expected to span at least 70 years of service in the US Navy. That would be longer than the Iowa class battleships that served in WWII and fought in Gulf War I.
Greater longevity is only half the story though. The Arleigh Burke class is more flexible and more capable in the current era of naval warfare than the Iowa class was during any naval era it participated in. The Arleigh Burke class, 62-70 strong, represents greater AAW capability, greater ASW capability, greater land attack capability, and greater ASuW capability than the sum total of all surface ships that make up any other single Navy in the world. We even reconfigured a few of our Burkes to deploy unmanned vehicles for MIW, you know, like the cherry on top. That is before we add ballistic missile defense capability, making this class of battleships not only the master of the seas, but we intend to give the entire battleship class military reach into space.
The comparisons are not close, indeed they can be extended beyond comparisons to just the Iowa class. Has any single class of “Line of battle ship” ever represented as high a percentage of the total global naval firepower at sea in any era? Even during the glory days, the Royal Navy never had a single ship class constitute as much authority of global naval firepower as the Arleigh Burke class does today.
But while you embrace the sense of strength and national pride that the Arleigh Burke class battleship should give every American, we should ponder the strategic warnings of Julian Corbett regarding fleet constitution; in no case can we exercise control by battleships alone. With the LCS falling into the category of an unrated ship, the United States Navy is in full blown pursuit of a ‘battleship only’ fleet constitution.
It is no wonder the fleet is too expensive to maintain, as Julian Corbett warned it would be for all battleship Navy’s, or that we cannot cover the necessary ground, as Corbett also warned. Corbett is still right when he states “cruisers are the means of exercising control;…the true function of the battle-fleet is to protect cruisers and flotilla at their special work.” Too bad we don’t have any cruisers in our fine fleet, as per the definition applied by Corbett (or Nelson).
The US Navy today is an all battleship Navy intent on building more battleships and an unrated flotilla of Littoral Combat Ships, and both our nation and Navy enjoys all the perks and pitfalls that comes with this force constitution strategy.
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