How might you build an "updated" Iowa class battleship, today?

Okay, time for another marginally intelligent “what if” question from me, so I’ll get right to it…how might you best build an “updated” Iowa-class battleship today, with modern engineering techniques and materials?

And this is assuming you’re committed to an Iowa-class variant—so, no Montana classes, and no “just build an AEGIS crusier and call it a ‘battleship,’” and no ripping all of the big gun turrets out and replacing them with missile farms. There are very good arguments for doing any or all of those things, but that’s not what this particular insane exercise is about.

Now, unfortunately, naval architecture isn’t my strong suit, so I’m left fumbling in the dark on my end. Wikipedia notes (with cites) that the unfinished USS Illinois would have included a number of improvements, increasing speed, decreasing weight, even increasing armor (although that last one was rejected).

I’m sure, with seventy years of progress and hindsight, there’s at least some more room for improvement—I seem to recall that modern US attack subs manage to save several tons of weight just by eliminating printed manuals, in favor of digital documents—but, like I said, the field isn’t my forte, and I’d hardly even know where to start.

So, that said—and recognizing that there would likely be tradeoffs in any design, and improvements to one area might easily cause shortfalls in others—I ask anyone more in the know that I: how might you update an Iowa, starting from the keel up?

It would be nuclear powered. There would be a far smaller number of turrets, and they would mostly be railguns, as they are safer and have a 200 mile range. The prospect of railguns is actually why there is even talk of building some kind of warship similar to a battleship - the limited range was what made the Iowa class ships useless. (the only reason they are mothballed today is that in theory the USA might face the need to invade a beach somewhere, where the enemy is close enough for the 20 mile range of the main guns to be effective for fire support. In reality, most possible conflicts are either against third world nations where there are many possible landing sites or against nuclear armed nations who will just go to nukes if you tried to invade. My post will draw foaming at the mouth supporters of the Iowa class out of the woodwork, but there’s just little point to a weapon system if it can only be used in extremely limited situations yet costs a fortune. You can also use cruise missiles and aircraft to do the same fire support mission as a battleship - the advantage is those 16 inch shells are cheap. But since you can use aircraft and cruise missiles against targets almost anywhere, but can only use a battleship a few places, you get more bang/buck by fielding ships packing cruise missiles and aircraft.)

Anyways, so railguns, nuclear power. You need lasers and sams for anti-missile defense. Modern radars. Anti-torpedo weapons.

Essentially, you get rid of most of the armor and replace that mass with active systems to shoot down incoming fire before it hits. You don’t need much armor because you cannot protect against torpedoes going off under the keel, shaped charges on missiles, tactical nukes, and railgun fire with big thick plates of RHA like the Iowa class warships had. You need to be able to shoot down the incoming projectile and you only need armor to stop fragments. Iowa class ships were designed before any of the weapons I named really existed - guided, accurate torpedoes, guided missiles with shaped charge warheads, tactical nukes, and railguns did not exist when the Iowa class ships were being designed.

For a similar reason you may want to divide your firepower into more separate ships. If a single torpedo hit is a mission kill no matter the size of the ship, maybe you want more, smaller vessels. With each new parameter you end up with a ship that looks more and more like a modern destroyer…(well, except for the nuclear part - nuclear reactors are such a pain and so expensive that they are only marginally helpful in reducing operating costs. If I recall correctly, the Navy thinks the warship needs to be a certain minimum size before it saves money to use nuclear, and some of the larger modern cruisers are on the edge of it being worth it)

It would be uncouth to fight the hypothetical so presuming an enormous “If” as in “if battleships weren’t a terrible idea today”:
I agree on giving it a nuclear reactor.

Protection: Something like spaced armor on either side, not as part of the hull but held a few meters away, going down to the water line. If something explodes underneath the waterline, odds are good that it’s trying to leverage the ship’s weight against it.

Main weapon: A scaled-up version of the AGS which is on the Zumwalt.
Presuming that range scales about linearly with caliber and that 20-inch guns can be mounted, that would give the guns a range of about 500km.

With advancements in loading and calculation which are already used in artillery, the same gun could fire several rounds and have them land at the same time.

If missiles can be ruggedized enough and held in a sabot, you could give anti-ship and cruise missiles quite a boost. Maybe you could combine the gun’s boost with a projectile that then uses a ramjet since it’ll be going fast and high.

At 270 meters in length, you might be able to raise several antennae over the length and use them as over-the-horizon radar array although I don’t know if a quarter km would be enough. Having many large antennae with plenty of power would be good for EW, especially if you used them as an AESA (

With that much volume and available electricity, you could have a pretty good data processing center.

Missiles and helicopters would be added just as they have to destroyers and for the same reasons. You could have quite a hangar on a battleship.

From what I can recall, the Iowa class was the only wartime BB that trumpef the Bismark in terms of fire control and radar. Couple with that nine 16’s vs eight 15’s. However, that confuses people. The Bismark can actually heave more shell tonnage over time. The reason is its guns’ high velocity and flat trajectory. It doesn’t matter if you have a faster loading and firing rate if you have to wait seconds longer for your shells to land and allow you to adjust.

That’s like asking “How would you build an ‘updated’ Ford Model-T today? And you can’t say you’d build a Honda Civic instead.” You need to define what characteristics you’re looking for that makes it an “updated Iowa class.”

So many people keep talking about torpedoes as if they were somehow magical, unstoppable, intelligent killing machines.

Make the ships double hulled, with lots of watertight compartments. Put energy-absorbing material between the hulls.

With modern computers, you could easily include some sort of automatic anti-torpedo system, analogous to the Phalanx.

Computerization in general–you would probably need less than half the original crew size.

May as well build them on land, so that they can open immediately as a museum.

In the battleship era, a massive ship was the only way to get that kind of firepower into a sea battle or alongside an invasion shore. There’s basically no need for either one any more, as even in those needs where sea-launched attacks are a good idea, there are lighter, faster, more capable ships that can throw warheads further.

Make them invisible, but watch out for accidental time travel.

Modern torpedoes are a lot more powerful and work in different ways than the torpedoes that battleship armor was designed to defeat. They explode directly under the ship, which first breaks the keel. Between the blast lifting the middle of the ship and the ship falling back into the cavity left in the water, smaller ships are easily broken clean in half. I don’t how much damage a Mk 48 torpedo would do to a battleship (the US never bothered to test that…) but they easily sink destroyer and cruiser size targets. My WAG is that a Mk 48 would put a huge hole in the unarmored bottom of an Iowa class ship, but probably not completely break it in half. However, the bottom is where all the magazines are. Hit that and the entire ship will be obliterated. I’m not aware of any anti-torpedo defense systems, and I’m guessing it will be impractical to add sufficient armor to the bottom of a battleship.

Here, have some gratuitous videos of target ships being torpedoed.

I know this isn’t a debate thread, but: this is not true in any way at all. First, all U.S. and British battleships *eventually *had better radar and fire control (principally because of radar) than BISMARCK. Not much of a surprise, given that BISMARCK’s standards were 1941 and stayed there, while Allied ships had until 1945 to improve.

But even in 1941, this is barely true. BISMARCK when sunk had FuMO 22 search and FuMO 23 fire control radar, I think; there’s actually quite some debate about this. FuMO 22 had a range of 13nm against a battleship with an accuracy of 5°; FuMO 23 I’m not sure about. KING GEORGE V carried Type 271 during the battle with BISMARCK, I believe; 11nm range, 2,5° accuracy; I’m not sure she carried fire control radar, but SUFFOLK in the same engagement did, Type 284, which was accurate to about 200 yards and had a range against a capital ship around 25.000 yards. In 1941, the standard U.S. radar was CXAM: 16nm range against a battleship, accuracy about 3°. About the same time, U.S. SG radar was first tried at sea: 22nm battleship detection range, 2-3° accuracy; IOWA later used an improved version of this, plus Mark 8 main battery control radar with 40,000 yards range and a range accuracy of 15 yards. Simply put: nothing matched IOWA in terms of fire control at her peak, and IOWA almost certainly would have matched BISMARCK easily in 1941; the only, very small, “perhaps” in this would be fire control radar, for which I could find no data for BISMARCK; but there’s no certainty she carried any, anyway.

Second, IOWA fire 9 x 2,700lbs of shell at 1 round per 30 seconds (loading at 5°), compared to BISMARCK’s 8x1,764lbs at 1 round per 26 seconds (loading at 4°). Checking the figures, BISMARCK’s advantage at shell flight times only becomes true in a meaningful away (that’s to say, over a second or so) at longer ranges. We’ll assume an engagement at maximum range: 35.000 meters for BISMARCK; IOWA has a three kilometer range advantage which we’ll ignore. Each BISMARCK shell takes 70 seconds to reach its target at that range, each IOWA shell a little under 79 seconds. (The firing cycle of the guns becomes meaningless under these conditions, since the guns could theoretically fire more quickly than their aim can be modified.)

IOWA fires 24.300lbs of shell every 79 seconds, BISMARCK 14.112 every 70 seconds. That is, IOWA fires 307lbs per second, BISMARCK 202lbs.

(Source for the figures: Friedman’s Naval Radar and Campbell’s Naval Weapons of World War II)

And besides the figures: there were probably at least a half-dozen or so battleships in 1941 which easily would have matched BISMARCK in terms of fire power and fire control; she’s a vastly overrated ship.

Something that can fight its way to within a thousand miles of Bejing and Moscow, from the nearest ocean approach, and assumes no overhead top cover will be available or exist.


Well, there’s the concept of just updating the ship with modern technology, which is surely achievable at great cost. And then there’s the concept of making a battleship that will rule the seas as they did a century ago, which isn’t achievable at any cost.

I think the only things you could really realistically do under the general rules of the OP (eg, can’t remove main guns to replace with missile magazines) is make it nuclear powered, replace steam with all-electric engineering, put a modern radar on it, put a surface ship torpedo defense system on it, use composite deck structures to make it stealthier, jam a bunch of EW systems on it, and maybe replace the guns with rail guns (depending if you build it today or in five-ten years since they are not a mature technology). Directed energy weapons are further out, but with a reactor design you’d have plenty of power for them.

As far as armor, do whatever you like. It won’t matter, really. Ain’t no double hulled super duper unobtainium hull that will make a difference.

Or, if we’re out in fantasyland, just make it a big gunned submersible. That’d be fun.

I don’t know a lot about hull design, but I know we’ve learned a lot about it since WWII.
I am sure we could design a hull that was about the same size and shape as an Iowa-class but produces much less drag.

At least two people have said make it nuclear already, and that’s really a no-brainer. The Iowa Class used an obscene amount of fuel, so there’s an expense that is easy to remove.

I have long thought that we ought to have something along these lines.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that battleships are obsolete in modern naval combat. But battleships are scary in a way that modern vessels aren’t.
Joe insurgent isn’t super-worried about a carrier nearby. Sure, it can launch F-18s that will come find him and drop bombs on him, but that’s a vague threat, and planes can be shot down so it seems like you could defend against them.
But the USS New Jersey can sit just over the horizon and throw shells that weigh as much as a small car at you. Tons of high explosives whizzing by overhead, inexorably going to their pre-determined destination is the kind of thing that makes you want to dig a deep hole and crawl into it, right after you change your pants.

I don’t think we’d get a lot of use out of them. In fact, I think if we had them we’d have even fewer chances to use them than we currently have. Much like when the Wisconsin went along to help liberate Kuwait: as soon as the bad guys figured out it was out there, they made sure to stay away from the shore.
But before that, guys surrendered to the little R/C plane that was spotting for it. They knew that that little plane meant tons of high explosive was about to come your way.

I figure we build 2: 1 for Norfolk and 1 for Pearl Harbor. We almost never send them anywhere. But the worlds knows we can, if we want to.

Sorry. That was ranty of me.

Here’s one anti-torpedo system.

Here’s another.

And the Navy is currently testing yet another system.

They are, except for the magical part. The warheads are sized to one shot kill modern warships. One issue with paper designing a battleship that does have enough armor to stop current missiles and current torpedoes is the enemy only has to make the torpedo/missile a little bit bigger to sink your new battleship. It costs the enemy a heck of a lot less to upsize their existing torpedo/missile design to carry a bigger warhead than it costs you to build a ship that has all that armor. It’s not the cost of the armor plates, it’s all the redundant systems and wiring and piping and other design work needed to make the ship credibly able to survive a direct hit.

I guess you aren’t being serious, but it’s not the cost of building the battleship. You have to do all the engineering work for the battleship’s systems. A 787 airliner costs 200 million per aircraft but cost 32,000 million to develop the working design. A ship obviously isn’t quite this expensive to develop relative to production costs but it’s not cheap. (the money goes both to all the staff, and also to building mockups and various prototype versions of all the major components unique to the warship, probably a few partially built complete battleships for systems testing)

I’d mount some of the guns from one of the museum ships on a good sized barge with plenty of ammo and modern fire control computers and GPS. I’d then use those guns as highly accurate artillery to support amphibious landings, as that’s all a battleship is really good for anymore (or in 1940, for that matter).

Even if we had directed energy weapons, we wouldn’t want them. They’d be line of sight, which would drastically reduce your range.

Yes, this is what I thought as I read through…

An OP occurs to me…