Long gone are the days where the United States Navy roamed the seas with heavily-armed battleships as its primary capital ships. Not everyone who talks naval warfare entirely agrees with mothballing the biggest guns of the American Navy, but there’s a reason the old battleships are gone – and a reason they’re never coming back.
There was a time when ship-to-ship fighting was the way of war on the world’s oceans. It made sense to create the biggest, baddest ship technology would allow, then arm it with as many weapons as it took to tear the enemy to shreds. If there was any way you could also prevent yourself from getting torn to shreds with some heavy armor, that was great too. Imagine how great it felt to watch British cannonballs bounce off the sides of the USS Constitution as you watched your shipmates take down part of the “world’s most powerful navy.”
As time wore on, the technology only got better. By the Civil War, “Ironsides” was more than a nickname. It was a must-have feature on American ships, made famous by the confrontation of the USS Monitor’s and the CSS Virginia’s epic shootout at Hampton Roads. By the 20th Century, naval powers were churning out ships with speed, firepower, and armor in a race to be able to sink the other side’s seafaring battleships.
Once the two sides saw each other, it was on.
In modern naval warfare, however, two sides don’t need to see each other. As a matter of fact, one side is better off being able to strike the other without warning – and without one side being able to return fire. These days, satellite technology, radars, and other long-range sensor technologies mean an attacker can see its target without ever needing to go looking for them. More importantly, a battleship (or battleship fleet) can be hit and destroyed without ever seeing where the shots were fired.
And while the battleship would be searching to take down its seaborne opponent, land-based ballistic missiles and anti-ship missiles fired from aircraft would be on its way to put 2,500-plus battleship sailors at the bottom of the ocean.
What battleships are still effective for is supporting ground forces with its guns, using them as support artillery for landing Marines. This is the main reason pro-battleship advocates argue for recommissioning the Iowa-class battleships currently being used as museums. But even the Iowa-class still uses a lot of sailors to fire so-called “dumb” weapons at a potentially civilian-filled environment, while a more precision close air support strike would be more effective and lower the risk of civilian casualties.
Not to mention lowering the risk of a counterattack killing the 2,500 sailors that might be manning the guns.