Where would Battleship designs have gone if planes didn't dominate?

Let’s say, by some quirk in history, naval aviation never really took off and planes were still being used primarily for observation. Where would that lead the development of Battleships? Obviously the death of the battleship is closely tied to the rise of carrier aviation.

Some navies continued to plan to build bigger and bigger battleships. The Super Yamato and H-class hulls were Axis designs which dwarfed their predecessors. Gun calibers were approaching 20" on paper. (18" guns were actually used).

Where does that leave other ships? My guess is that navies get transformed into fleets consisting of Destroyers, Battleships and submarines. Frankly I don’t really see a place for Cruisers when the range and accuracy of capital ships keeps increasing.

Not much to offer:

But I think the main batteries of battleships, which were capable of accurate bombardment at ranges of 15 miles average, would have been superceded by guided missile cruisers.

Guided missle cruisers and advanced underwater propulsion ordnances would be commonplace. subsurface rockets, and large - think small city - floating battle stations.

No way this is a General Question. It it either a MPSIMS, IMHO, or Great Debates topic. I’ll do you the honor of placing it in GD. (Sorry, tom. :slight_smile:


samclem GQ moderator+

But how long until the development of a good anti-ship missile. Do we even have an anti-ship missile capable of reliably damaging a fully-armoured WWII-era battleship? Would their range be that much longer than 16" guns given the lack of spotting aviation?

Then again I think they’d all be superceded by submarines, once we develop sufficient torpedo technology, for that precise reason (lack of range). I was going to suggest that perhaps subs would radio the spotting data to the missile platforms, but if you have the data yourself, a torpedo is a more effective antiship weapon than a missile.

Of course. We have tactical nukes.

Okay, reliably damaging, yes, but reliably sinking? :smiley:

As I recall, one reason we un-mothballed the battleships for awhile was that their armor was so superior to the light cruisers. That armor could handle modern missile attacks much easier.

The modern navy is made up of small ships that we can afford to lose, since fighting off $25k missiles gets a bit difficult.

Sans aircraft, I would still envision a similar navy made to handle overwhelming missile assaults.

Well basically if a plane can do it, a missile can, most of what a plane is doing these days is carrying the missile to the target, hope thats not too offensive to pilots, Im obviously oversimplifying a wee bit.

A Tomahawk carries a 450kg warhead, one might not do it, but why stop at one? And if you could adapt it to make top attacks, I think life would get pretty iffy awfully fast. Once you start designing a specifically ‘anti-battleship’ missile, I think they’d struggle an awful lot, the cost of killing one would be dwarfed by the cost of making and running it.

So I cant see what real difference this would have made in the long run.


Absolutely. Google Bikini Atoll. Several battleships were (moored) targets in the Operation Crossroads test. The bombs (one air burst, one shallow water burst) ruptured weld seams, started fires, and so on. A close enough burst will disable the crew, too, so that damage control would be impaired.

Guided missiles were appearing at the end of WW2:

The Germans developed and used the “fritz” FX1400 glider bomb (radio controlled from a nearby bomber) to sink the Italian BB Roma, and nearly sank two other BB’s (Italian Italia and British Warspite).


The USN experimented firing “liberated” German V-1 and V-2 rockets from subs and surface ships. (The US eventually developed it’s own missiles based on these pioneering tests.)

The USS Missippi (finished in 1917) was used in the 50’s as a missile test ship.

Improved subs:

Submarines were also becoming more deadly as the war dragged on: Snorkles (able to operate submerged more effectively), more powerful torpedo warheads (torpex explosives for example), radar. Eventually, submarines were able to operate just as fast submerged as they did on the surface.


While the aircraft did speed the end of the battleship, the guided missile seems to have sealed the deal…

Even during the age of the battleship, many naval architects kept trying to build the ultimate BB. Armored enough to defeat the biggest guns in service, but still have enough useful displacement left over for engines and weapons. Then some yutz builds a bigger gun.

Another consideration is the support infrastructure. The designers had to deal with the restrictions of maximum draft (to prevent grounding while pulling into harbors), hull width and/or length (drydock dimensions, Panama Canal dimensions, etc.). With a given max hull size, max draft, and max available space for engines (based on current tech, which you can then get a close estimate of max possible engine power), desired speed (longer hull for a given engine HP usually gives more speed), amount of area you want protected by armor, etc, etc, etc… quite a juggling act.

Eventually, I think that the armored warship would have faded away, as it appears that missile and torpedo power kept getting better, and a practical limit in armor (weight and cost) means that defense needs to focus on “avoid being hit”, as opposed to thicker and thicker armor.

Todays USN DD’s, the Arleigh Burke class, are 8000 tons. Almost as much displacement as a lot of Heavy Cruisers that fought in WW2. The aegis guided missile cruisers, the Ticonderoga class, are not much bigger. (9500 tons)

With limited peacetime budgets, ships need to be able to do multiple missions (ASW, AA, Anti-surf, littoral warfare.), and this accounts for the growth in the size of the USN DD’s.

In a shit-hit-the-fan war, cheaper, smaller, easier to build mission specific ships would be churned out, if their is enough time. (Like the USN DE types of WW2. Max 25 knots, small hull. Useful for ASW/convoy escort jobs, but not as useful for fast combat TF’s or air defense.)

Subs would have taken the role of planes in respect to the battleship. When subs first were used they were for support and recon for the main fleet. In wargames if a sub captain would brewak away and take on the ‘enemy’ fleet, they were given low marks for being a renegade - but the tactic worked, just that no one wanted to admit it.

The battleship was not just sunk from the air, but from beneath the waves too.

I think if there was a shooting naval war during the Cold War, subs would have been the only things still effectively operational after about a month.

From what I recall from my time in a joint fleet of the USS Ranger (one of the first super-carriers) and the Battleship New Jersey. It was estimated that only the US, USSR, UK, China and maybe France had conventional Missiles that could sink a Battleship. This was in 1987. The Ranger had very heavy armor below the water and was considered as tough to sink. Part of the carrier’s protection was very good watertight compartmentalization.

Battleships were doomed from the Air and from Submarines, as others have said.

John DiFool, if the cold-war got hot but stayed conventional we had a good chance of protecting our carrier fleets from the Russia Sub fleets by the 80s. Some have said this was part of the reason the USSR finally gave in. The Aegis cruisers, ASW Helicopters, Long Range, Long flying time P-3 Orions and a ring of Fast Gas Turbine Frigates and our own Fast Attack subs, made it increasingly likely that the Soviets could not count on taking out our Carrier Fleets.


The Russian designed Sunburn missile is a good example. It carries a 750lb warhead and flies at over mach 2 skimming the ocean surface, just before impact it performs a ‘pop up’ maneuver and hits the ship. Range is 100 miles. A 750lb shaped charge will penetrate any armor, especially with that kind of kinetic energy behind it.

By the time the japanese built the YAMATO class battleships (18 " guns), the battleship was obsolete. the 18" guns were already too big-they had passed the point of diminishing returns (the US 16" guns had superior range and penetration power). By scaling up another 2", the japanese actually lost range and muzzle velocity. So bigger guns were a dead end path… The Italians went on a differnt tack-their battlesghips were very fast (Battleship “VITTORIO VENETO” could make 35 knots.)
What eventually doomed the battleship: air attack: IJNS YAMATO was sent to the bottom by torpedo bombers and dive bombers, within 1 hour of being attacked.

[QUOTE=What Exit? If the cold-war got hot but stayed conventional we had a good chance of protecting our carrier fleets from the Russia Sub fleets by the 80s. Some have said this was part of the reason the USSR finally gave in. The Aegis cruisers, ASW Helicopters, Long Range, Long flying time P-3 Orions and a ring of Fast Gas Turbine Frigates and our own Fast Attack subs, made it increasingly likely that the Soviets could not count on taking out our Carrier Fleets.

According to thissite http://www.rense.com/general59/theSunburniransawesome.htm

the Russians developed the Sunburner specifically because they couldn’t outbuild the USA in number or size of ships. Seems to be a Libertarian site, make of that what you will, but the information is apparently acurate. Quote: "Summer Pulse [the largest peacetime operation in US Navy history, involving seven carrier groups off Taiwan] amounted to a tacit acknowledgment, obvious to anyone paying attention, that the United States has been eclipsed in an important area of military technology, and that this qualitative edge is now being wielded by others, including the Chinese; because those otherwise very ordinary destroyers were, in fact, launching platforms for Russian-made 3M-82 Moskit anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO designation: SS-N-22 Sunburn), a weapon for which the US Navy currently has no defense.

Well, no… perhaps when that was written, but we have SeaRAM now. It’s basically the Phalanx system with RIM missiles replacing the cannon. It can engage multiple incoming targets at much longer ranges… used in conjunction with the AEGIS system, I believe. Any defense could get overwhelmed, though… or fail.

I cannot judge the validity of that paper, but I was clearly talking about the 1980s, not currently. As the Soviet Union was going under, I do believe most of our carrier groups could have survived a hot but conventional war.

If the paper is correct, it is scary, but weapons are always about a new innovation and then a new counter measure.


Several years ago I saw a TV special on advanced warship design, and the whole idea being explored was lowering the ship’s profile until the main deck was right down on the waterline, and then all but eliminating superstructure. Now, that was ONE design that was explored, but the marine architects seemed really excited about it. Another concept that was explored was moving away from aircraft carriers toward Cruise missile technology. There still would be a need for ship-to-ship ordnance, and missiles might not always be the best choice (in cases where long-distance combat wouldn’t be possible or feasible.) In that case, some kind of tube-fired round would still be required, I’d think.

Not a new idea. Some ironclads of the 1850-1870’s were designed with low freeboards. The advantages then:

  1. Makes for a more difficult target.

Disadvantage: by placing your guns and spotters near the water line, you restrict your own ability to see and shoot at greater distances when the tech advnced enough to allow it. This also applies to radar sets, and is why radars are typically mounted high on mast heads.

  1. Less armor is required to protect exposed vitals.

  2. Heavy seas were expected to wash over the deck, acting as a stabilising force.

Disadvantage: In practicle matters, sea water still finds it’s way through loose fittings and hatches. With an already low reserve of bouyancy, this has serious implications.

I assume the advantages they are looking for now involve some kind of “stealth” reasoning. A lot of missiles still use radar (either self contained, or through a system on the launching platform) to home in on a ship.