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Why the Great Battleship Arms Race of the 1940s Never Happened

USS Iowa (BB-61) Fires a full broadside of nine 16/50 and six 5/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, 1 July 1984. Photographed by PHAN J. Alan Elliott. Note concussion effects on the water surface, and 16-inch gun barrels in varying degrees of recoil. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the the Department of Defense Still Media Collection.

The late 1930s and early 1940s promised a renewed era of battleship construction, similar in some ways to the bonanza that immediately followed the construction of the HMS Dreadnought. The “naval holiday” restrictions imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty system were relaxing, and in any case Japan and Italy had determined to abandon the system, reducing the constraints on Britain, France and the United States. Moreover, Germany and the Soviet Union were preparing to re-enter the battleship construction game.

Events intervened, of course, but it’s worth thinking about what the battlefleets of the world might have looked like in 1950 if the demands of the Second World War had not pulled resources away from battleship construction, while at the same time demonstrating that technology had passed the great warships by.

United States

The United States began updating its battlefleet with the construction of the North Carolina class in 1938. Design work in the mid-1930s had demonstrated that the new generation of battleships would require higher speeds than the existing fleet, in part because of the need to keep up with aircraft carriers, and in part because of foreign competition. Consequently, the U.S. Navy had largely given up on modernizing its older, slower battleships and focused entirely on new construction.

The two ships of the North Carolina class entered service in 1941. Four South Dakotas followed in 1942 and 1943. Both of these classes were built according the Treaty requirements, with a speed of about 28 knots, a displacement of 35,000 tons, and an armament of nine 16” guns. Six Iowas, also armed with nine 16” guns, would enter service by 1945, and five massive Montana class battleships (70,000 tons, with twelve 16” guns) would round out the fleet. All of these ships would have been completed by the mid-to-late 1940s. In addition, in 1940 the U.S. Navy ordered six Alaska class “large cruisers,” armed with nine 12” guns and with a speed of 31 knots, which were battlecruisers in all but name and which likely would have served with the battle fleet.

The twenty-three ship battle squadron, comprising a slow wing of the North Carolinas, South Dakotas and Montanas, and a fast wing of the Iowas and the Alaskas, would have been divided between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Montanas were too large to use the Panama Canal, preventing easy transit of the most powerful ships. Even divided, however, the two squadrons would have proven competitive with any battle fleet in the world.

United Kingdom

The British battlefleet of 1950 would have included a motley assortment of warships from different eras. The most modern ships included the five battleships of the Duke of York class and the six battleships of the Lion class, all of which probably would have entered service by 1950. The weird HMS Vanguard was a product of wartime exigency, and might have been cancelled if construction had proceeded at a more leisurely pace, but she was ordered before the war began, and consequently we can include her in the calculations.

However, the Royal Navy had embarked on a program of reconstruction late in the interwar period, meaning that the older ships were more modern than those of other navies. By the time the war started, the battlecruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Warspite had completed their modernizations. HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant were modernized during the first years of the war. HMS Hood was scheduled for reconstruction, but the beginning of the war made modernization impossible. These reconstructions resulted in very capable warships; HMS Hood in particular would have been a formidable unit if the Royal Navy had fully updated her. It is unclear how long these older, modernized ships would have remained in service, but we can assume that they would have remained in service by 1950.

The battlefleet of the Royal Navy in 1950 thus would have consisted of five King George Vs, six Lions, HMS Vanguard, HMS Hood, HMS Renown and three modernized ships of the Queen Elizabeth class. The Royal Navy might also have retained Nelson and Rodney (presumably after refit) to fill out the slow wing of the squadron, giving the fleet fourteen fast battleships and five slow battleships. The disposition of these vessels across the world would have depended on the demands of maintaining the Empire.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Navy limped through the interwar period with a few dreadnoughts that were ancient even by the standards of World War I. Stalin wanted a larger fleet, and by the mid-1930s the Soviet economy was healthy enough to at least contemplate a significant building program. With typically Bolshevik “can do” attitude, by the late 1930s the Soviets planned to build fifteen Sovetsky Soyuz class battleships, in addition to three Kronshtadt class battlecruisers.

The Sovetsky Soyuz battleships would have been truly immense warships, displacing some 65,000 tons and carrying nine 16” guns in three triple turrets. They were projected to make 28 knots, although problems in developing the industrial capacity to produce heavy armor limited the effectiveness of the design. The Kronshtadt class battlecruisers would have displaced some 42000 tons, and probably would have carried either 9 12” guns in three triple turrets of six 15” guns in three twin turrets. 32 knots were expected, although this likely would have proven optimistic. The Soviets planned to follow up the Kronshtadts with the somewhat faster, but less heavily armed and armored Stalingrad class.

As it happened, the demands of constructing these ships vastly exceeded the capabilities of Soviet shipyards. Four battleships and two battlecruisers were under construction by June 1941, but one of the battleships had fatal construction flaws and had to be cancelled. Problems in design and machinery likely would have created additional delays. However, practice makes perfect, and if all had gone well, we can imagine a Soviet Navy with perhaps eight battleships and four battlecruisers by 1950. These ships, due to the defects of Soviet maritime geography, would have been divided between four different fleets incapable of mutual support, leaving squadrons distinctly inferior to those of local competitors everywhere except the Black Sea.


Japan dove into the late 1930s naval race with the Yamato class battleships, a group projected at five ships that would have outclassed any battleship existing at the time. The Yamatos displaced 72,000 tons at full load, carried an armament of nine 18.1” guns, and could make 27 knots. Although only three ships were completed in real life (one to a highly modified design) there is no reason to doubt that Japan would have completed all five ships if war had not intervened. Japan planned to follow up the Yamatos with the A-150 class, a slightly larger and slightly faster group of battleships that would have carried six 20.1” guns in three triple turrets. Although only two of this class were ordered (with expected completion date around 1947), we can imagine that Japan would have had time to complete a third vessel.

This would have given Japan eight modern, very large battleships by 1950. But as with the Royal Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy had no interest in discarding its older ships, especially as many of them had been recently modernized. It is likely, thus, that the 1950 Imperial Japanese Navy battleline would have included the two Nagato and four Kongo class battleships, although the speedy Kongos might have been shifted to carrier escort and other specific “cruiser” duties. Unlike the British, Americans and the Soviets, the Japanese would have had the luxury of keeping their battle squadron concentrated for use in a single theater of operations.


German battleship design suffered badly from the lack of experience with any modern warships during the interwar period. Consequently, the first two interwar battleship designs (the Gneisenau and Bismarck classes) suffered from numerous defects, with the latter in particularly notably deficient to foreign designs. Nevertheless, the Nazi government was committed to naval reconstruction, and by all appearances would have continued to build up the battleship fleet.

By 1950, the Scharnhorsts would likely have been modified to carry six 15” guns in three twin turrets. They displaced about 38,000 tons and could make some 30 knots. The Bismarcks, at 51,000 tons, could make about 30 knots and carried eight 15” guns in four twin turrets. Before the war began, Germany planned to follow up these ships with the six H-39 class battleships. Essentially improved Bismarcks, the H-39s would have carried eight 16” guns in four twin turrets on a slightly higher displacement.

Committed construction of all these ships would have given Germany ten modern battleships by around 1947. Germany had enough construction slips to build perhaps two more battleships by 1950, although it is unclear how the design might have evolved beyond the H-39 class. Hitler authorized the preparation of truly monstrous designs of 90,000 tons and larger, although it seems unlikely that Germany could have completed such vessels by 1950. More likely, the Kriegsmarine would have opted for something similar to the H-41 design, an upgraded H-39 with 16.5” guns and an improved protection scheme. Altogether, this would have left Germany with a squadron capable of competing with, but not overwhelming, the Royal Navy of 1950. It likely would have been more than sufficient to keep the Soviet Baltic Fleet bottled up, however.


France had the ambition and sufficient resources to undertake a major naval modernization in the late 1930s. First came the Dunkerque class, a pair of excellent light battleships armed with eight 13” guns. The French followed this up with what were expected to be the four ships of the Richelieu-class. Displacing 43,000 tons and armed with eight 15” guns, these ships were fast and exceedingly well-armored. The last two ships would have been built to a significantly different design, but in any event, only the first two were completed. France intended to build four additional ships of the Alsace class, likely displacing 46,000 tons and carrying nine 15” guns in a traditional three turret arrangement. This would have given France a battle squadron of ten modern, fast ships by the late 1940s.


Italy adopted a similar strategy to that of Japan and the United Kingdom, upgrading older battleships with higher speeds in order to allow them to participate in the modern battlefleet. Three Cavour and two Andrew Doria class battleships, all veterans of World War I, would have remained in service in 1950 after massive reconstructions in the 1930s. These ships would have been led by the four new ships of the Littorio class, three of which served during World War II. Displacing some 45,000 tons, the Littorios could make 31 knots and carried nine 15” guns in three triple turrets. Italy’s nine ship battlefleet would have operated primarily in the central Mediterranean.

Parting Shots

That’s a lot of battleships. With its immense resources and industrial capacity, the United States would have become the world’s premier battleship power, followed by the Royal Navy. The other major powers would have been limited by geography and economics, although both the Germans and the Japanese could likely have held their own for a while. The future of the battleship beyond 1950 would have depended to great extent on how the great navies incorporated new technologies, in particular, the jet aircraft and the anti-ship missile, into their war planning, and on what opportunities they had to develop experience with new kinds of warship.


Iowa-class battleship. Image: Creative Commons.

Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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