“He that commands the sea .... commands the world itself."
What is the status of the battleship under existing conditions, and what is it likely to be ten or twenty years hence, assuming a normal rate of progress in the science of naval warfare? Is this type of ship already obsolete, or is there substantial reason to suppose that it will become obsolete within the near future? These are questions of more than academic interest. So long as they remain unanswered, it will be difficult for any one of the great maritime powers to map out a definite and systematic policy of sea defense. In 1931 the initial period covered by the Washington compact will lapse, leaving each of the signatory powers free to resume the construction of capital ships, albeit on a limited scale. It is not enough that the executive heads of the United States, the British, and the Japanese navies are satisfied that the capital ship is, and will remain, the strongest exponent of armed force at sea. Public opinion is a factor of weight in the molding of defense policies, particularly in the case of the United States and Great Britain, and if the public in either country made up its mind that a certain type of ship had ceased to be worthwhile, funds for the perpetuation of that type would be withheld, let the experts plead as they might.
Now on both sides of the Atlantic detractors of the battleship have already contrived by skillful propaganda to implant in the public mind a prejudice against this type. It would be difficult to over-estimate the effect of lay opinion of the anti-battleship crusade which Sir Percy Scott carried on almost to the day of his death. Several of the most widely-read newspapers in England have assumed an attitude of hostility to the dreadnaught, and in recent Parliamentary debates on naval affairs the opposition to further expenditure on this class of ship has made itself felt with growing strength. That practically every journal which commented on the launch of the British battleship Nelson last September should have assured its readers that this vessel and her sister, Rodney, would, in all probability, prove to be the last of their line, is a fact of some significance. In the United States air enthusiasts have proclaimed the demise of all surface fighting ships so often and so loudly that a pure hypothesis is coming to be invested with the dignity of an established truth. What, then, is likely to be the position in 1931, at which date the maintenance of treaty ratios will necessitate the building of new capital tonnage by all the powers concerned? Proposals to lay down such tonnage are certain to be resisted by a large body of public opinion, perhaps by a majority, and it would be hopeless for the naval authorities to try, at the eleventh hour, to demonstrate the actual need of new ships. It is true that the simultaneous disappearance of all such vessels from the world’s navies would have no effect on relative strength, provided the treaty ratios were adhered to in respect of other craft—which, by the way, is not the case at present. If, on the other hand, the capital ship were discarded by one nation and retained by another, the balance of power would be rendered vague and uncertain, to say the least of it. From every point of view, therefore, it seems expedient to define, as clearly as may be, the present and future role of the battleship in strategy and tactics.
This the writer proposes to attempt by an objective survey of the data available, with special reference to questions of design, construction, offensive and defensive attributes, as well as the technique of weapons which, as many critics claim, could be employed against the battleship with deadliest effect. Hitherto this aspect of the problem has been largely neglected in public discussions. The ordinary newspaper reader has no relish for technicalities, and since it is the business of editors to keep their readers interested, they cannot be blamed for giving more prominence to picturesque indictments of the battleship than to sober and reasoned arguments for the defense. Yet, in the writer’s judgment, the problem is fundamentally a technical one, and cannot be rationally approached from any other angle. It is so easy to say, and is so often said, that “aircraft can sink the mightiest dreadnaught afloat.” There is, of course, a substratum of truth in the statement, but as a general proposition it is entirely misleading. Of broader but equally deceptive application is the further claim that aircraft and submarines together will drive every surface ship from the sea. This is mere prophecy, not only unsupported. by a jot of tangible evidence, but running counter to actual experience. To abandon tried principles in favor of dubious theories is always unwise, but to do it when so vital a concern as national defense is at stake would surely be worse than foolish.
The modern battleship incorporates the ultimate degree of naval artillery power. It is at the same time the least vulnerable of all ships to this form of attack. It is expressly designed to deliver and to withstand harder blows than any other type of ship. Among surface craft it is admittedly supreme. Yet its critics assure us that the battleship is a slothful, clumsy, and feeble giant, an emasculated Goliath, impressive only because of its bulk, and entirely at the mercy of the punier but more agile opponents who would swarm about the inert monster and sting it to death. Let us examine this theory in the light of acknowledged fact. The modern dreadnaught, so far from being slothful, can move through the water at a very respectable pace. In the British Navy there are dreadnaughts which steam at 31 knots—equal to 35.7 land miles an hour. They are, therefore, appreciably faster than the swiftest liners of today, which are popularly known as “ocean greyhounds.” The slowest battleships now in service are good for 21 knots. But for the Washington Treaty restrictions on displacement, dreadnaughts with a speed of 35 knots would already be afloat. The battleship is able to maintain a high rate of progress for long periods; at lower speeds it can make a non-stop voyage of 10,000 miles or more. In the hands of a capable navigator it can be maneuvered as easily and surely as a yacht. To label such a vessel slow and clumsy is an abuse of words. Its principal arm of offense is the great gun, of which it may have eight or twelve pieces, according to caliber.
So much has been heard about the terrible havoc wrought by torpedoes and air bombs that the destructive power of heavy naval ordnance is liable to be overlooked. Accepting the U.S.S. Colorado as a typical battleship of modern, though not ultra-modern design, we find her mounting a main battery of eight 16-inch 45-caliber guns. Each weapon is over 60 feet long, weighs 105 tons, and discharges a projectile of 2,100 pounds with an initial velocity of 2,800 feet per second. The energy developed at each discharge would lift a weight of 98,400 tons one foot above the ground. If a gun of this type were on view at a public exposition its tremendous size and power would amaze all beholders. Mounted in a turret on shipboard it seems to be dwarfed by the size of the vessel itself, and the prodigious destructive energy latent within this massive tube of steel is less evident to the casual eye. Notwithstanding the great weight of gun and projectile, one round can be fired every 45 seconds, and this rate of fire can be kept up so long as the target continues to bear. Thus, the Colorado going into action with her eight 16-inch guns loaded, would deliver forty rounds in the first three minutes; and since tons of shell is hurled at each salvo, her volume of discharge in that brief space of time would amount to 37 tons. This torrent of fire could be directed against any target up to eighteen miles, at which range, with well-trained control officers and the latest director apparatus, a fair percentage of hits might be expected. At shorter ranges a much more accurate fire could, of course, be delivered. As the 16-inch shell has great penetrative power—at 9,000 yards it will pass through 18 inches of the hardest armor plate—none save the most heavily armored ships can resist its thunderbolt impact, and each shell that drives into the vitals of the target will explode there with the force of a large-caliber bomb. It is therefore not difficult to visualize the extraordinary sum of destructive power that a squadron of present-day dreadnaughts could exert. Nothing has been said of the secondary armament of twelve or sixteen 5-inch rapid-fire guns, each pouring forth 50-pound shells at the rate of ten per minute; or of the eight 3-inch anti-aircraft guns which fire still more rapidly.
So much, then, for the battleship’s powers of attack. Her combination of high mobility and long-range, hard-hitting artillery makes her a tactical unit of incomparable value under the ordinary conditions of squadron warfare. Her sole raison d’être is to serve as a floating automotive platform for the heaviest ordnance. The big gun, despite all assertions to the contrary, is at once the most accurate and least resistible weapon of naval combat. The torpedo is a formidable arm, but in range and precision it is far inferior to the gun, and the damage it causes may be localized by devices to which reference will be made in due course. Air bombs of very large caliber may inflict mortal injury on the strongest ship, provided enough of them can be dropped in exactly the right place. A few direct hits from these bombs might wreck the upper works of a dreadnaught, but whether they would disable the ship as' a fighting unit has yet to be proved. Heavy bombs detonating alongside would produce much the same effect as torpedoes, the damage from which may be localized. It is, however, important to note that these very heavy bombs cannot be transported by airplanes operating from the deck of a ship; they can only be used by large machines flying from a shore base. Bombs of the maximum caliber that ship airplanes are able to carry would inflict only superficial injury on a battleship. They are much less to be feared than direct hits with heavy shell. Nor must it be overlooked that the menace of air attack is of too recent an origin for ship designers to have explored all the possibilities of defeating it. This problem, however, is closely related to that of protection against curved-trajectory gunfire. A ship well protected against plunging fire would have little to fear from bombs.
It is frequently claimed that gas bombs would speedily disable the greatest dreadnaught by putting the entire crew out of action. In point of fact, the gas peril has long been recognized by naval authorities, who have taken measures to avert it. Certain of those measures, and perhaps the most effective of them, are confidential; but it may be said that the equipment of every officer and man on board a battleship going into action tomorrow would include a gas mask, so designed as not to interfere with the performance of his duty, whether it be reading of the figures from a rangefinder, working an instrument in the plotting room, or controlling an oil- jet under a boiler. Actual tests have been held to determine whether the fighting efficiency of a ship would be impaired under such conditions, and the result in every case has justified a negative answer. Further, it is quite feasible to construct gun-turrets, plotting-rooms, and other enclosed spaces vital to the working of the ship in action which would be virtually gas-proof. This is an improvement which may already have been introduced into ships now afloat; it will certainly be a feature of future dreadnaughts. Phosphorus, incendiary, asphyxiating, or explosive bombs—all can be countered by the ingenuity of the ship designer if he is allowed a reasonably free hand.
Nor is he dismayed by the menace of torpedo or mine, neither of which presents an insoluble problem. Before the World War the power of such weapons was underrated, and consequently the protection of ships from their attack did not receive the attention it deserved. It was, therefore, not surprising that battleships of the older class should almost invariably have succumbed to the powerful torpedoes and mines which were employed during the war. Even the British dreadnaught Audacious foundered after striking two mines. But to cite these incidents as proof that the modern battleship is too vulnerable to be worth perpetuating is to ignore the remarkable progress which has since been made in design and construction. No sooner did the full extent of the underwater peril become manifest than naval architects set to work on the problem. Their labors culminated in the “bulge,” a device that proved successful beyond all anticipation. Many bulged ships were torpedoed during the war, but not a single one was sunk. Perhaps the most striking example of endurance to punishment was afforded when the British monitor Terror, of 8,000 tons, was attacked by German destroyers off the Belgian coast. Although hit by three torpedoes in succession, she remained afloat and was able to proceed into port under her own steam. In a few weeks the damage was repaired and the ship again in service. On another occasion a sister ship, the Erebus, was struck by a distance-controlled motor boat, carrying a charge of 500 pounds of T.N.T. which detonated amidships. In this case the bulge so effectively absorbed the shock that the hull proper sustained no injury whatever, not even a leak being started. As the explosion may be said to have resembled that of a large-caliber bomb falling alongside, it is a fair inference that bulged ships are less likely to be disabled by air attack than others not so equipped.
Since those early days the bulge has been much improved. Subdivision of the hull below the waterline has also been extended. A vessel equipped with these devices is, therefore, in a much better position to withstand underwater attack than her predecessor of ten years ago. In vessels of the Maryland class there are so many longitudinal bulkheads between the vital spaces of the ship and the outer skin plating that no outside explosion would be likely to inflict disabling injury. It is true that torpedoes and mines of greater power than those in use during the World War may be evolved. So far as the torpedo is concerned, however, a limit is set to its size by considerations of space and weight in the vessel carrying it. In 1918 Germany built a few destroyers to carry the new 23.6-inch torpedo, which was 26 feet long, weighed over two tons and had an extremely powerful warhead. But it was necessary to give these boats a displacement of 2,400 tons, which almost placed them in the light cruiser category. Experience has shown the 21-inch torpedo to be the heaviest that can be handled conveniently in destroyers and submarines of normal size. Larger torpedoes may come into service, but they are likely to be the exception, not the rule. To minimize the effect of mine explosions is a more formidable problem. Bulges offer no defense to a mine detonating beneath the keel, but even here the ingenuity of the designer promises eventually to overcome all difficulties. Recent experiments in France and Italy have shown that ships constructed with triple-bottoms can be endowed with an adequate degree of protection against mines. In this connection, it is of interest to note that the electric drive lends itself better than any other system of propulsion to that minute subdivision of hull which is the battleship’s best insurance against underwater attack. The mine itself has lost much of its terror since the invention of the paravane. A ship armed with this gear can steam through a mine-infested area at small risk to herself. From this brief review of developments in construction, it will be seen that the menace of underwater attack is relatively less serious than it was, for while the methods of such attack have undergone little improvements in recent years, the defense has steadily increased in efficiency. It may be affirmed, therefore, as a fact beyond reasonable dispute, that the primacy of the battleship has not been seriously challenged by the submarine.
There remains the threat from the air. The possibly fatal effect of super-caliber bombs on the strongest dreadnaught is referred to above. Bombs of 1,000 pounds and upward do most certainly constitute a real danger to the battleship. Bombs of less weight than this, judging from recent trials, might cause some structural damage and heavy loss among personnel, but probably could not put the ship out of action. Now it seems clear that a battleship could not be disabled, let alone destroyed, by bombing planes capable of being flown off a ship platform, since the useful military load of such machines is restricted, at present, to about 500 pounds. This being so, the battleship would incur serious danger from air attack only if and when it approached within range of the enemy’s airdromes on shore. That range will naturally tend to lengthen as airplanes become more efficient. Machines are now in service with a flight endurance of 600 miles with a useful load of 1,500 pounds. For the present, therefore, we may take 300 miles as being the nominal distance from land at which a heavy bombing raid could be launched against warships. In practice, however, the distance would be considerably less than this, for the objective—unless it happened to be a ship or ships moored in a known anchorage—would first have to be located, and a ship under way might shift her position by as much as seventy miles during the time it took the attacking planes to come out from their base.
But assuming the objective to be duly found and the assault delivered, what are the prospects of success? A fleet that knew itself to be within range of shoreward air raids would probably have its own planes ready for counter-action. The aggressors would thus have to reckon upon meeting opposition before they got within range. Another disturbing element would be shell fire from below, and while it is customary for aircraft partisans to scoff at this form of defense, a well-directed cannonade from the numerous 3-inch high-angle guns—eight per ship—of a battleship division would scarcely conduce to accuracy of aim on the part of the bombers. Moreover, the targets would be traveling at high speed on an erratic course, perhaps emitting vast clouds of smoke. Peace-time tests offer no reliable indication as to the percentage of hits likely to be registered under the conditions here pictured. Bombs would be dropped more or less haphazard, and each plane, once its single bomb had left the trap, could take no further part in the attack. Is it seriously contended that by tactics such as these the ocean is to be swept clear of dreadnaughts?
Those who decry the battleship might reflect that its magazines contain from 600 to 800 projectiles equal in destructive power to heavy demolition bombs, and that these deadly missiles can be hurled, not at random but with great precision, up to a distance of many miles. So far as all the evidence goes, a battleship would run an infinitely graver risk of destruction when engaged with an adversary of its own type than if it were being subjected to air attack. The Ostfriesland, a motionless, helpless target, was finally sent to the bottom after hours of bombardment from the air. At the Battle of Jutland three great dreadnaughts moving at high speed were sunk in swift succession by gunfire, two salvos at most being sufficient in each case to administer the death-blow. The most zealous champion of aircraft must perforce concede the enormous destructive power of the big gun, nor can he logically deny that this-weapon, by reason of its superior precision, would hold its own against all other arms—provided the ship on which it is carried could be made virtually unsinkable. In effect, therefore, the whole of the present controversy on naval tactics centers in the possibility or otherwise of keeping the battleship afloat, and this in turn is a purely technical question. A ship armed with heavy long-range guns, and able to defy attack from below or above, would dominate the seas.
The claim here presented is twofold: first, that battleships of the newest type, e.g., the Maryland and sisters, the British Hood and Nelson class, and the Japanese Nagato class, are so constructed that they would be difficult to sink, or even to disable, by torpedoes or air bombs; second, that future battleships could be endowed with a higher degree of protection by accepting a reduction in speed and weight of battery. Before proceeding to examine the strategical and tactical functions of the dreadnaught, it may be of interest to consider the possible lines of structural development. These will be governed, in the main, by the progress of submarine and aerial warfare. Heavier torpedoes and air bombs will necessitate an increase in the resisting power of battleships. As we have seen, the danger of plunging fire from heavy guns is already causing naval architects to pay more attention to horizontal armoring, which would be equally effective against bombs. The battleship of the future may have no belt armor at all, the whole weight of protective plating being put into a steel carapace enclosing all the vital parts, such as machinery and magazine spaces. Warship design is essentially a matter of compromising weight. High speed demands a generous margin of weight for machinery, and if a powerful armament is also specified, the surplus left over for armor is necessarily small. Conversely, if a moderate speed be accepted, the ratios of weight available for battery and armor are higher. If moderate speed is combined with a reduction in battery, the percentage of weight that can be devoted to protection will be very large.
To take a few typical battleships of the present day: in the British Iron Duke and Royal Sovereign the percentage of weight due to protection is thirty-two. In the Queen Elizabeth it is thirty-one. In the Hood, which is reckoned to be a very stiffly armored ship according to British ideas, the percentage is thirty- three and one-half. In American ships the percentage of protection to total displacement is slightly higher, viz., 35 per cent in the Pennsylvania and New Mexico. The disparity, such as it is, is due to the lower speed of the American ships. In battleships of the pre-dreadnaught era more weight was assigned to protection than is customary today. In American ships of that type this item accounted on the average for 38 per cent of the displacement; for the Japanese Kurama the figure was 40, and for the French Henri IV, a coast-defense battleship, it was as high as 46 per cent. This ponderous weight of armor and other protective devices was a striking tribute to the power of naval artillery; but the real interest of the figures lies in the proof they give that the existing standard of battleship protection could be substantially increased if the need arose. In a battleship of 35,000 tons displacement, of 20 knots speed, armed with six 16-inch guns, it would be possible to pre-empt 15,000 tons for protection. If a ship so constructed would not be absolutely unsinkable, she could at any rate stand much more punishment from gunfire, torpedo, or bomb than any battleship now in service.
A word must be said as to the possible influence of the Diesel engine on battleship development. Anything which tends to enlarge the cruising radius of a warship will obviously tend to increase its strategic value. The present type of battleship, propelled by steam, has a sea endurance of, say, 10,000 miles. In time of war the actual distance it could traverse without replenishing fuel would be considerably less than this, owing to the need for fast steaming in areas where hostile submarines might be encountered. As a result, the steam-driven battleship under war conditions, is, in a sense, tethered to its base, whence it dare not venture further than 2,000 or 3,000 miles. The same disability is, of course, common to all naval steamships, among which, however, the battleship has the largest endurance. Still, it cannot wage war at any great distance from its base unless adequate fuel supplies are obtainable locally—that is, from an emergency base within the war zone. But if the cruising endurance of the battleship could be so extended as to make it independent of base facilities for weeks at a time, its efficiency as an instrument of aggressive warfare would be immeasurably increased. The substitution of oil-engines for steam plant may render this possible. Already, it is claimed, a Diesel installation could be manufactured for a battleship of the Oklahoma class (27,500 tons, 20 1/4 knots), which would develop the same power as her present steam engines and, by economy in space, permit of the ship’s fuel capacity being enlarged to 6,500 tons. This would endow her with a cruising range of 69,000 miles at 12 knots and 58,000 miles at 15 knots. While some may consider these figures too optimistic, there is no doubt whatever that the Diesel battleship would have a radius greatly exceeding that of a steam-driven vessel. (Vide article by Captain A. M. Proctor, U. S. N., in the Proceedings for July, 1925. Page 1221.)
Before leaving the technical aspect of the battleship problem it is desirable once more to emphasize the fact that nothing approaching finality has yet been achieved in the design and construction of such vessels. Even within the limits of tonnage imposed by treaty, marked improvement could be effected in protection and armament. If it can be shown that command of the sea depends in the last analysis on sheer fighting power, and, further, that the last word in naval combat rests with the big gun, then it would appear to be sound policy to sacrifice speed for the sake of increased gun-power and protection. For all-round utility a battleship of 18 knots speed, so constructed as to be well-nigh unsinkable, would be preferable to a faster but more vulnerable ship. Tactical exigencies may yet promote the building of heavy-armed battleships, virtually proof against torpedo and bomb, with moderate speed and a cruising endurance sufficient to take them around the globe. The advent of such craft would be likely to revolutionize present-day ideas of naval strategy, which are bound up so closely with problems of logistics.
We come now to the concrete issue: Is the battleship an indispensable unit in naval defense? Since those who maintain the negative view generally turn a deaf ear to arguments based upon past experience, holding that aircraft and submarines have radically modified the conditions of sea warfare, it becomes necessary to rest the case for the battleship upon presumptive premises. In so doing, however, we but follow the example set by air enthusiasts, whose contentions are based entirely upon hypothetical grounds. They assert, for instance, that battleships would be powerless to prevent an aerial invasion of the United States, which could only be resisted with effect by counter-action on the part of aircraft, supplemented, perhaps, by submarines. The prospective invader is presumably a power in Europe or Asia, since to visualize an attack of this kind as coming from the American continent itself would put too severe a tax on the imagination. As the range of aircraft is limited for all practical purposes to a few hundred miles, it follows that the projected invasion is primarily a naval undertaking; in other words, the aircraft which are to spread death and destruction in the cities of the United States must be brought across the sea in ships. An apology would be offered for stating this self-evident truth were it not that certain publicists, whose zeal for air-power clouds their judgment, have totally ignored the preliminary operations which alone would make air invasion feasible.
We will assume that the invading force starts across the ocean. It consists of aircraft carriers and their naval escort: battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. The sailing of such an armada could not be kept a secret, and news of its approach would be sure to reach Washington days before the actual attack could develop. Consequently, the American fleet would seek to intercept the hostile force and bring it to action on the high seas, before it came within air range of the coast. If the enemy force were defeated there would be an end of its mission: in any event, the damage it received in action with the American fleet would probably be such as to cripple its powers of mobility and compel it to retreat. It is an age-old maxim that no military descent can be made on an enemy’s coast until his naval forces have been defeated or contained. When the objective of attack lies at a considerable distance across the sea, this axiom applies to aerial invasion no less than to an actual landing of troops, because in each case the invading force, whether it consists of troops or aircraft, has to be transported in ships. It is thus a demonstrable fact that the United States could not be subjected to an air attack on a major scale except by an adversary who had gained command of the sea through defeating the American fleet or penning it inside its bases. Obviously, therefore, a strong and efficient navy is the only sure safeguard from foreign air aggression.
To prove this proposition it is only needful to consider the probable course of events if the United States, in deference to air-power doctrinaires, had scrapped its fleet and trusted exclusively to aircraft for defense. In that case an invading force from overseas could not be intercepted en route. There would be no means of discovering when and where it proposed to launch an attack, for the defenders, being without naval scouting vessels, would have to rely on aircraft reconnaissance, which is too limited in range, and much too subject to weather conditions to be dependable. The enemy could so time his movements as to arrive within air range of the coast before dawn, and then proceed to fly off his planes for an attack on New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington, as the case might be. No warning would come till the raiding machines crossed the coast, by which time it would be too late to take effective counter-measures. Having unloaded their bombs the enemy planes would return to their fleet, which might be lying 200 or 300 miles off-shore, and before the American aviators could strike a blow in return it would have steamed out of range, perhaps to move in again under cover of night and launch a second raid at dawn. However strong the American air force was, it would be powerless in the face of tactics such as these. An enemy in command of the sea could appear, vanish, and reappear at any point along the United States seaboard, using his aircraft freely to raid such objectives as he chose, yet incurring no risk of counter-attack so far as his ships were concerned. Of course, this species of guerilla warfare would be unlikely to produce decisive results, for which reason it probably would not be attempted; but the hypothetical case is presented as an answer to those who maintain (1) that the United States is exposed to air attack from Europe or Asia, and (2) that a strong air force at home is the surest method of preventing such attack.
This is not a digression from the main issue, which relates to the value of the battleship, for the situation here depicted could arise just the same if the invading force, before commencing air operations against the United States, had met and defeated a weak American fleet. This, it is contended, he would have an excellent prospect of doing if there were no American battleships to oppose his own. Without battleship support, cruisers and lesser craft are utterly powerless to resist dreadnaughts. They must either give these heavyweights a wide berth or else be shot to pieces on sight. Submarines have a scarcely better chance against battleships when the latter are screened by destroyers, as was shown time and again during the World War. Hence the profound conviction of so many naval students that a fleet without its due quota of battleships is of small value either as a strategic or a tactical factor.
Having endeavored to prove the efficacy of naval power as an insurance against air invasion, let us now consider a further claim made by air-force champions, namely, that their favorite arm is sufficient in itself to thwart any form of naval aggression, without the aid of sea power. One’s thoughts turn instantly to blockade, as being by far the most probable form that naval operations by a great maritime nation at war with the United States would take. There need be no hesitancy in admitting that close blockade has been rendered more difficult by the appearance of aircraft, though, indeed, the idea of close blockade had been given up by naval strategists long before the first efficient airplane ever flew. The development of torpedo warfare had made it too hazardous to be worthwhile. We have thus to deal only with the distant blockade, which may nevertheless prove just as irksome and, in the end, just as deadly as the older system of short-range blockade used to be.
Now there is no possible means of raising a sea blockade other than by defeating, or at least holding in check, the main naval forces of the blockader. It would be instructive to learn how this could be done by aircraft alone. If the United States were to scrap its battleships it would discard its only shield against the menace of blockade. That operation is effected by maintaining a cruiser patrol across the main shipping routes which converge on a given section of coast. Throughout the World War allied cruisers patrolled a line that stretched from the Shetland Islands to the coast of Norway and thus covered every northern approach to Germany. The cruisers employed on this service were, in fact, armed liners, which any big warship could have blown to matchwood. Yet, apart from submarine raids, they were never molested. The reason for their immunity was simple: behind them lay the battleships of the Grand Fleet, ready to rush to their support at a moment’s notice. Germany, therefore, could not raise the blockade which was strangling her, without first defeating the Grand Fleet, and since her own navy was not strong enough to accomplish this she had perforce to endure the rigors of the blockade as best she might.
If the United States were ever subjected to blockade, the geostrategical conditions would be very different, but the principles would remain the same. Ships approaching her coast would be held up by hostile cruisers, which probably would be careful to keep beyond range of air attack from the land. Blockading cruisers might occasionally fall victims to submarine attack, but when the area of patrol is an extensive one this danger is not very serious, and it can be mitigated by vigilance and skillful seamanship. The Germans, with all their submarines, never succeeded in driving away the British cruisers that maintained the North Sea line of patrol. If America had a fleet of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, but no battleships, it is difficult to see what she could do against a blockading force. If she sent out her light vessels against the enemy cruisers, these would promptly call up their battleships, the heavy guns of which would soon decide the issue. Aircraft in its present state of development would be impotent to prevent a long-range blockade. To this end counter naval action is essential, but such action could not be made effective without the support of the dominant factor in combat on the high seas—that is, the battleship.
The summer maneuvers off Hawaii are held to have demonstrated the need for a stronger military garrison and a larger air force to protect the islands. Without disputing this conclusion, it is submitted that the maneuvers also revealed in striking fashion the indispensable part which a battle fleet plays in the defense of the Hawaiian group. In these maneuvers a fleet corresponding to that of a certain great power was adjudged to have overcome the defenses of Oahu and thrown ashore a large body of troops. Whether this would be a practicable operation under the logistic and tactical conditions of today is exceedingly doubtful. Certainly, the risks taken by the invading fleet would be appalling, and the odds against success heavy indeed. If, however, the United States were to abolish its battleships, the invasion of Hawaii would be brought well within the bounds of possibility. It is a platitude of naval strategy that no insular fortress, however strong its defenses, can hold out indefinitely against determined naval attack unless relieved from the sea. Oahu might be crowded with soldiers and amply supplied with aircraft, yet in the absence of a powerful fleet to come to its help it would assuredly fall to a naval siege, provided this was persevered in. The obstacle most likely to deter a would-be invader from crossing the Pacific to attack Hawaii is the American battle fleet. If that obstacle did not exist the enterprise might be launched with a reasonable prospect of success. Communication with the United States would be severed by the enemy’s light forces, and with the islands thus cut off from outside help their reduction would be only a question of time.
Apart from the moral effect of complete isolation, their material powers of resistance would steadily diminish without possibility of replacement. Probably the enemy’s battleships would not be risked in engagements with the land defenses, but would be held in readiness to deal with any light naval force from the United States that tried to raise the siege. If such a force were sent out it would almost certainly be destroyed. At best, it might contrive to evade the hostile battleships, but evasive tactics have never yet won a campaign. Aircraft reinforcements could only be brought in ships, and ships would have to run the gauntlet of blockade. Always in the background would loom the menace of the enemy battleships, and unless this menace were exorcised every attempt to relieve the beleaguered position would be foredoomed to failure. If recent war experience counts for anything, the battleships could defend themselves against submarine attack. Aircraft, having a strictly limited range, could be avoided by the simple expedient of keeping out of their reach. Nor is it to be supposed that the invaders would neglect to provide themselves with a strong contingent of airplanes, which would be equally available for attack or defense. This problem, there is reason to believe, has been played and replayed on the Kriegspiel board at staff colleges in more than one country, always with the same result. The belligerent without battleships ends by throwing in his hand, and the besieged islands are left to their fate. It is a further significant fact that in nearly every war game aiming at the solution of this particular problem the aggressor is assumed to have a battleship fleet and the defender none, the inference being that if battleships are an asset common to each side the problem of attacking and defending the Hawaiian islands could not, or would not, arise.
Turning from defense to attack, it is here claimed that without a battle fleet the United States would be incapable of conducting aggressive warfare in a remote zone overseas—as it might have to do in order to recover lost territories. Such warfare could not, in any case, be waged without a local base or bases. Battleships, however, would be an indispensable factor in the seizure of advanced bases, even though their power was exerted only indirectly. Once the bases were obtained it would be impossible to utilize them for any operation likely to produce decisive results unless a strong battleship force were available. If an advanced base were used as the starting point for an aerial offensive against the enemy’s territory, the aircraft carriers transporting the machines would require battleship support, since otherwise they could be destroyed or driven off by enemy light forces. But with battleships ready to support them if need be, the carriers would be safe from anything less than dreadnaughts; and, if the enemy sent out his ships of this class a fleet action would ensue, in which case the issue of the war might be decided in an hour.
From a careful study of the logistic conditions, it seems obvious that battleships constitute a fundamental element in any scheme of strategy which may be devised for the defense, or the recovery, of American insular territories. Bases are of equal importance, but without battleships the bases would be valueless, even if they could be acquired. British naval authorities are so convinced of the battleship’s value that they are building at Singapore a new dreadnaught base which, together with its landward defenses, will probably cost from $75,000,000 to $100,000,000. (Editor’s Note: Vide Captain W. S. Anderson’s essay this issue, page 437.) There is nothing obscure about the chain of reasoning which has led them to embark on this costly undertaking. Singapore is intended to serve generally as a citadel of British power in the Southern Pacific, and particularly as a bulwark of defense to Australasia. It is argued, probably with justice, that no enemy would venture on an invasion of Australia or New Zealand if his line of approach were exposed to an attack in flank by a British battle fleet pivoting on Singapore. In spite of the difficult problems of transport which a military invasion of this kind would involve, it would be a feasible and not unduly hazardous operation so long as the defending force had no battleships. The invader’s battle fleet would brush aside such opposition as cruisers could put up, and the defense would, therefore, have to rely upon submarines and aircraft; but the former could be kept at a distance by screening flotillas, and the latter would be too limited in range to do anything until the enemy had come within 200 or 300 miles of his objective. The tremendous extent of the Australian coastline militates against the effectiveness of aircraft or submarines for local defense. Hundreds of submarines and thousands of airplanes would be needed to keep the seaboard inviolate. The British have made up their minds that a battle fleet at Singapore represents a much cheaper and more effectual safeguard to Australia.
The battleship is not designed as a commerce raider, but there is every reason to believe that it would be a formidable menace if employed in that way. Cruisers dare not face it. Submarines are too slow and purblind to deal with a ship footloose in the broad ocean; their opportunities for attacking it would depend very largely on luck, a factor upon which the wise strategist never builds. Shore aircraft could do nothing unless the raider came within their limited reach, which he would be careful not to do. Aircraft flying off ships could not cripple him with the light bombs they carry. Torpedo planes might be more dangerous, but the drawback to these machines is that they have to descend close to the surface of the sea before releasing their missiles, and in so doing they offer an excellent target to flat-trajectory barrage fire from rapid-fire guns.
A raiding battleship could “mop up” any and every convoy that was guarded only by cruisers. The only sure method of protecting convoys would be to provide them with battleship escort. The possibility that Germany would send her battle cruisers into the Atlantic was a veritable nightmare to the allies throughout the world war. Elaborate measures were concerted to meet this contingency, including the stationing of a United States battleship squadron off the Irish coast. Assuming that the same danger threatened in a future war, can any air enthusiast honestly maintain that he would be prepared to counter it with aircraft alone? How, for example, would he propose to deal with a hostile battleship raider that was operating on the transatlantic route? The quarry could not be reached by aircraft flying from the land. It would have to be sought by planes carried on ships, and the military limitations of such machines are notorious. Moreover, the aircraft carriers themselves would.be liable to be sunk out of hand by the guns of the raider. In war it is always the heaviest punch that counts. We know the submarine can deliver a fatal blow when opportunity offers and the target is vulnerable. We know the airplane, whether bomber or torpedoist, may—in circumstances so exceptionally favorable as to be almost inconceivable— cripple a dreadnaught. But we know, also, that the most accurate, the least resistible, and the deadliest of all blows that can be struck in naval warfare is a salvo from the heavy guns of a battleship.
To sum up: the case for the battleship may be rested with some confidence on the following points:
- The big gun is in all respects the most decisive weapon of sea warfare; hence the ship armed with big guns must necessarily remain the capital unit of sea power—provided it can be made reasonably proof against underwater and overhead attack.
- No battleship now afloat represents the last word in protection. But battleship design is not standardized. There would be no technical difficulty in building a ship that was virtually un- sinkable by any form of assault, save gunfire. This would involve some sacrifice of speed; but, even so, the battleship would still be twice as fast as the swiftest submarine traveling submerged, and the low speed of the submarine is not held to nullify its fighting value. Furthermore, by substituting Diesel motors for steam engines, the cruising radius of the battleship could be so greatly increased as to render it independent of bases for weeks on end.
- The tactical value of submarines and aircraft in oceanic warfare, as distinct from warfare in narrow seas, is largely speculative; that of the battleship is self-evident. It can cruise and fight in weather that would incapacitate submarines and aircraft. It can infallibly defeat every other type of surface vessel. With proper destroyer support it has little to dread from submarines, and with an aircraft carrier in company it need not fear air attack. In any event, the risk of submarines or overhead attack would be cheerfully accepted by a commander of a well-balanced battle fleet in return for the overwhelming weight of offensive power which lay in his hands.
- The battleship has been well defined as “the ultima ratio of naval force, that element of naval force which in the last resort crowns and sustains all the rest.” Is that definition applicable either to the submarine or the airplane? All the evidence is against it.
- The battleship, by reason of its unique hitting and resisting power, affords the sole reliable means of defense against blockade and aerial invasion from oversea.
- When the torpedo has acquired the range and precision of a 16-inch gun; when submarines have become as swift, as seaworthy, and as habitable as big surface vessels; when the radius and carrying power of aircraft have increased tenfold, and bomb-dropping is as accurate as gun practice: then, but not till then, will the primacy of the battleship be endangered.