Imagine the combat power of a battleship combined with the flat-top of an aircraft carrier. This “battle carrier” would have the speed to keep up with other carriers and the big guns to make it a formidable foe. That was the thinking between the world wars and during World War Two. Take the unfinished Iowa-class battleships, the USS Illinois and USS Kentucky, and convert them into aircraft carriers.
Japan Tried the Conversion First
The idea had potential and was not discarded immediately. The Japanese did their own battleship to carrier conversion with the Yamato-class battleship, the Shinano. This was the biggest carrier built during World War Two. Meanwhile, the Americans decided not to convert the Illinois and Kentucky. Yet the navy did create the Independence-class which were Cleveland-class light cruisers made into carriers.
The Soviets Had Their Own Aviation Cruiser
During the Cold War, the Soviets were building their own Kiev-class carrier and cruiser amalgam that entered service in 1975. The Kiev aviation cruiser was the first of the class and it had a crew of 1,600 sailors. It displaced almost 44,000 tons with a top speed of 32 knots. The Kiev had an aft flight deck for Yak-38 vertical take-off and landing fighters in addition to helicopters. The Soviets armed the Kiev to the brink. It came equipped with dozens of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes, plus four 76mm guns.
The U.S. Navy Battleship Was Back in Business
Proposals had been considered on the American side to convert the Iowa-class over the decades as more battleships were retired. One called for removing the aft guns and installing a deck for helicopters – more for an anti-submarine role. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration, as part of a major naval build-up, recalled the Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin battleships to service. They were outfitted with land attack cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles.
Could a Jump Jet Take Off from a New Kind of Carrier?
What changed was the innovative AV-8B Harrier II vertical take-off and landing “jump jets.” Why not, the navy pondered, install two ski-jump decks on the Iowa-class to take advantage of this development? That was one idea – to put 20 Harriers on an Iowa-class and eliminate one 16-inch turret. After studying the concept further, the navy considered the project too expensive and figured the Harriers would not be able to take full advantage of substandard ski-jump decks. This converted battle carrier was going to call for 2,000 sailors that would increase the cost. There were already plenty of missile tubes on destroyers and cruisers. Besides, Harrier jets could already be carried on amphibious-landing ships, so why reinvent the wheel?
Keep the Battleship as the Master of Shore Bombardment
The Iowa-class kept its original mission of land attack bombardment for air support of ground troops and protection of marines during amphibious landings. In fact, the Wisconsin and Missouri shelled Iraqi positions during Operation Desert Storm. The carrier idea never caught on again. Supercarriers were considered more in demand than converted carriers from battleships. The conversion was going to take a substantial amount of time and money, plus the window for this construction was really only possible during the early to mid-1980s – probably not enough time to make it happen. The concept for the battle carrier scheme faded away as the Cold War ended.
Bonus: Iowa-Class Battleship Photo Essay
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.