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Battleships Have Much To Teach Us

Justly or not, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines don’t seem to make the cultural grade compared to battleships.

The Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fires at positions near Beirut on 9 January 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War.
The Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fires at positions near Beirut on 9 January 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War.

What accounts for the lasting allure of Iowa-class battleships?

These are ships of war built in the 1940s to fight Axis enemies that no longer exist.

USS Iowa battleship firing its 16-inch guns.

USS Iowa battleship firing its 16-inch guns.

We are constantly told that the aircraft carrier doomed the battleship to obsolescence at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The Iowa-class briefly found new life during the 1980s and 1990s, including stints of combat duty, but they have slumbered in retirement for over three decades now.

All are museum ships, two in the Atlantic, two in the Pacific. They are yesterday’s news. 

What the Iowa-Class Battleships Can Teach Us

And yet these are not mere relics in steel. They still have something to teach us about how to build a fleet able to win the affection of the American people. 

Why the Iowa-class still excites public interest, then, constitutes a question of present-day importance.

Naval magnates fret ceaselessly about how to get ordinary folk to rediscover their love affair with their navy and to rededicate themselves to the cause of sea power at a time when storm clouds are gathering in the Western Pacific.

A society that gazes out to sea—and remembers how past generations dealt with seaborne strife—is a society predisposed to invest in a battle fleet of proportions and capability befitting an oceangoing superpower. How can the leadership cultivate such a society? 

If shipwrights could consciously devise ships to fire enthusiasm as well as win battles, they could ease the challenge of reconnecting with the populace. The question is how. 

History, storytelling, and visual appeal could fuse into a compelling formula for popular outreach. First, history. The mystique around the Iowa-class stems in part from nostalgia for their illustrious past.

The four battlewagons compiled respectable records as fighting ships in World War II, chiefly in the Pacific. But that can’t explain their fame in full. As new-construction warships, they were relative latecomers to the maelstrom.

I was lucky to serve on one of these warships during the Persian Gulf War, the battleship Wisconsin. She only reached the Pacific theater in late 1944. USS Missouri, the most iconic in the class owing to images from the Tokyo Bay surrender ceremony, didn’t join the fighting until early 1945, when the war’s endgame was coming into view. 

So a simple ledger of achievements cannot explain the Iowas’ legacy. 

Iowa-Class Battleship USS New Jersey. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Iowa-Class Battleship USS New Jersey. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In fact, the Iowa class suffers from a history deficit relative to other World War II veterans. With service lives spanning the entire war, other battleships accomplished as much as—and in many cases more than—Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin, which make up the four-ship class. Our local battlewagon—USS Massachusetts, a hop, skip, and jump from here in Fall River, MA—earned combat laurels in both the Atlantic and Pacific. In late 1942 the battleship Washington triumphed in an epic clash off Guadalcanal, during the Solomon Islands campaign. The battle in “Ironbottom Sound,” an infamous killing ground for surface vessels, convinced Japanese commanders to abandon their struggle for Guadalcanal, and made way for an American counteroffensive across the South Pacific to rumble to life. Battleships that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor, raised, and returned to duty exacted vengeance at Surigao Strait in late 1944, demolishing an Imperial Japanese Navy battleship fleet in history’s last significant surface action. 

This is drama. 

And that’s leaving aside feats recorded by other ship types. For sheer spectacle it’s tough to match the life of the carrier USS Enterprise, the most decorated U.S. Navy vessel of World War II. Enterprise amassed twenty battle stars, having stood at the forefront of such seismic engagements as the Battle of Midway (1942). (For comparison: New Jersey accumulated the most among the Iowa class, with nine.) The claim that naval air power rendered battleships obsolete is false. They rendered estimable service. What is certainly true is that carrier aviation demoted battleships, including the Iowa class, from their place at the center of the battle fleet. That being the case, you would expect Enterprise and other flattops to have demoted battleships to also-ran standing in popular memory as well. To everyman they should be historical curiosities and little more. 

But no. Battleships’ renown endures. History comprises part of the Iowas’ legendary status, but there’s more to it than that. 

Second, storytelling. The morphing nature of naval warfare helps explain the Iowas’ longevity in the public imagination. These days warships deal out precision firepower across long distances. Their hitting power resides mainly in aircraft and guided missiles. They seldom sight the enemy visually. Dreadnoughts were brawlers by contrast. They were apex predators back in the days when gunnery decided the outcomes of high-seas battles. They were built to dish out and take punishment against foes that were generally in plain view. It may be that something about putting yourself in harm’s way at close quarters resonates with Americans’ sporting instincts—witness the everlasting popularity of boxing, wrestling, or mixed martial arts. Mixing it up in close combat makes for better tales than sending out the air wing or a volley of missiles to assault hostile forces over the horizon and out of sight. 

Close action is personal. And people respond to stories about people in trying circumstances. The results of a surface engagement are concrete and instantly intelligible—you’re hit, or you’re exhilarated at being shot at without result. Its human dimension is palpable. The story of a surface action is about ship crews. By contrast, long-distance air or missile engagements are remote and abstract except for the aviators actually doing the fighting. That’s why enthusiasm for naval aviation mainly affixes to aviators and their aircraft—not to the carrier or its crew. One imagines Top Gun: Maverick would have been a box-office dud had it been set mostly on board the carrier rather than with Maverick’s squadron swooping through the sky under fire. 

A historical quirk also helps battleship enthusiasts weave a compelling narrative about the Iowa-class. The Iowa-class certainly represented the zenith of American battleship design, and it has a strong claim to be the finest of the type ever built by any navy. Yes, the Imperial Japanese Navy superdreadnoughts Yamato and Musashi sported larger main guns able to loft bigger projectiles longer distances. But size is not everything. A lively debate has raged for decades about whether an Iowa or a Yamato would have prevailed in a gunfight, and for good reason. My bet is on the relatively lightweight American dreadnought because the Yamato class was inferior to the Iowa class in fire control. Maximum firing range matters little when your long-range fire is imprecise. You miss. 

Iowa-Class Battleship. Image: Creative Commons.

Iowa-Class Battleship. Image: Creative Commons.

Maximum effective range is what counts. In all likelihood an Iowa-class vessel boasting accurate sensors and fire control would have closed the distance and scored the first hits in a one-on-one gunnery duel. In the process it would have set itself up for ultimate victory.

Being the GOAT at something is a good way to cement your place in popular lore. People love a winner! Nor can some future class of battleships ever eclipse the Iowa class. Its GOAT status is forever because no one builds dreadnoughts any more and no one is likely to start. That’s the benefit of being the greatest and the last. Meanwhile ship types that remain in service get superseded all the time. Essex-class fleet carriers, which anchored the World War II fleet, yielded their place to supercarriers by the 1950s. Conventionally propelled supercarriers gave way to nuclear-powered flattops by the 1970s. And now the venerable Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers stand to be outclassed by Ford-class flattops now entering service. Or so the Ford’s proponents say. 

While USS Enterprise deserves acclaim as the U.S. Navy’s greatest fighting ship of World War II, in other words, neither it nor any other historic aircraft carrier can be the GOAT. The same goes for cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and any other ship type that’s still being constructed. Battleships are another matter. The Iowas’ victory is final. 

And lastly, there’s the matter of style. Combat efficacy comes first in ship design. It must. But at the same time ships are political implements, and the look of a ship matters for political reasons. Edward Luttwak points out that Soviet capital ships made a sensation with nonspecialists during the Cold War. They exuded brawn, with sensors, weapons, and fittings jutting out everywhere on the main deck and superstructure. American warships featured missile launchers, to be sure, but their missiles resided in magazines deep within the ship and out of view. And by the late Cold War, Aegis cruisers—the U.S. Navy’s prime surface combatants—carried their missiles in vertical-launch silos, which look like flat panels on the main deck. Launchers disappeared altogether, along with whatever visual impact they had. Similarly, cruisers’ phased-array radars, the core of the Aegis combat system, looked like flat panels mounted on the boxy superstructure. Again, the gee-whiz factor was nil. Cruisers were the class of the world’s preeminent surface fleet, but they were outwardly unimpressive. 

Perversely, American ships had little political sex appeal despite outpacing their Soviet counterparts by technological measures. 

What Luttwak says about hulking Soviet ships applies many times over to Iowa-class battleships. Like all battlewagons, their main and secondary guns are their signature feature. Each 16-inch, 50-caliber main gun is 67 feet long and can fling a 1,900- or 2,700-pound projectile over twenty miles. Our classic line when giving a ship tour was that the guns fired Volkswagens, which weighed roughly the same as a 16-inch shell. That captures imaginations. But the appeal of the Iowa-class goes beyond brute statistics. The ships’ elegant lines, their fluted bows in particular, have an artistic flair that few—not even fellow classes of battleship—can match. They were not designed primarily for style. But maybe designers happened on a politically valuable style in the course of fashioning a utilitarian ship of war.

Namely, a ship that excites the imagination of regular people. 

The man on the street may not be an expert on sea combat, but his opinion matters all the same in an open society. Ships that are both visually imposing and beautiful to behold may help the navy garner political support. It may be possible to deliberately replicate what designers of the Iowa-class did by accident—and to harvest similar political dividends. 

Iowa-class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Iowa-class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Battleships Just Won’t Go Away 

Justly or not, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines don’t seem to make the cultural grade compared to battleships. Maybe naval architects should start factoring style into their design efforts. For their part navy leaders should relearn how to retell history to persuasive effect. People are mostly unimpressed with standard navy talking points about how much cargo travels around the world by sea, etc., and needs the navy’s protection. That’s mere information, and Excel spreadsheets inspire few. People are impressed by what they see before them, and they love stories. They respond to yarns about ships and the sea. Combine matériel with narrative and you may have something. 

It seems battlewagons of old still have something to teach the sea service. 

Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. pagar

    May 21, 2023 at 10:04 pm

    What a modern navy needs today is a fleet of mini-battleships.

    How many would depend on your needs.

    A mini-battleship (with armored hull) is extremely useful in peacetime for harassing intruders and chaskng off agent provocateurs of gunboat nations.

    During wartime mini-battleships can serve to act as honeypots for enemy forces, thus they must br armed to the teeth, armed as though there’s not coming a tomorrow.

    Mini-battleships need to have the best satcom gear available so that the satellite-ship combo can track hostile forces as they leave port to join battle.

    Aircraft carriers ? Just big expensive toys compared to mini-battleships the real bona fide workhorse of a truly ultra modern navy.

  2. GhostTomahawk

    May 22, 2023 at 12:40 am

    Battleships come from an Era when men were excellent sailors and laid eyes on their enemy. Then toe to toe these ships fought it out. Best ship and crew continued.

    Now… people ships don’t fight ships. It’s a race to out tech each other… leading to disinterest

  3. pagar

    May 22, 2023 at 3:03 am

    Storm clouds gathering in the Pacific.

    Nothing to do with Iowas.

    But them clouds have everything to do with biden’s globalwide woke agenda.

    Short & simple.

  4. Johnathan Galt

    May 22, 2023 at 8:43 am

    We could probably produce super battleships of about 250,000 tons (about 5x the size of the USS Iowa). Load them up with nuclear reactors, energy weapons, rail guns as well as heavy launch weapons. That much steel would, in the short term, probably be virtually invulnerable against the entire current range of conventional weapons. And also intimidating.

    Couple that with something like Influit Energy’s storage systems powering all of the support ships. The MegaBB could provide all the energy for the fleet with no resupply required. Use of binary explosives and automated machinery to mix only as required to launch a weapon, such a ship would also be immune to secondary explosions should an enemy weapon actually score a hit. Could result in some very new strategies…

  5. Jim

    May 22, 2023 at 10:29 am

    The battleship was the apex of naval warfare… until the aircraft carrier… but the Iowa Class still holds the imagination because of its big guns & sleek look.

    Aircraft carriers for all their effectiveness & power don’t have the sleek look, the silhouette, and big guns of the Iowa class battleship.

    A battleship has that unmistakable look of a warship… aircraft carriers… don’t have that look.

    Big guns… even though anachronistic… still holds the imagination… I remember when the navy brought the battleships out of retirement… it was cool… to see images of the big guns firing (as several images in this article show).

    And for many of us… it tickles our memories… maybe even as a child… putting together model battleships… and how proud we were of our model battleships.

    There may be something else… we got to see & read of the revenge of the battleships against Japan.

    Battleships took the brunt of the Pearl Harbor attack (although, not Iowa Class), so, to read and see images of the newer, sleeker, better battleship confirmed America makes everything better, bigger, stronger… the American battleship was the best ever made.

    The battleship will always be an image of strength.

    That plays to a part of the American psyche… Americans respect strength… and beauty… the Iowa class meets both tests.

    A battleship represents strength of purpose.

    And, strength of purpose is what defined the American experience in WWII.

    The battleship is the symbol of unrelenting purpose… as expressed in guns & steel.

    Perhaps, the combination of strength & beauty is what really keeps the battleship alive in the imagination.

    Think of it… what drives many aspects of American culture… a primal respect for Strength & Beauty.

    Battleships have that in spades.

  6. Frederic A Parker

    May 22, 2023 at 11:03 am

    Nostalgia in not a good reason to resurrect outdated weapons.
    Wooden ships are beloved, but no one is advocating their return.
    The Muzzle Loading Rifle Assn members love their old style guns, but the Army won’t issue them to troops.
    All surface ships are becoming more and more vulnerable. They make wonderful targets.
    I tend to agree with those who say the future of the US Navy is fast attack littoral (coastal) vessels and submarines.
    That leaves another problem, though. How would we get the Marines into the fight. That debate is raging in the USMC.

  7. Mike Pekarek

    May 22, 2023 at 12:15 pm

    Any modern battleship would need to account for modern threats. The Iowas were mainly designed for broadside gun fights at nearly flat trajectories. They have some concession to longer range (steep arc) shots but deck armor is heavy, and their belt doesn’t go too deep for underwater shell impacts. Their torpedo protection duplicates the poor one of the South Dakota. While it would take effort, Iowas wouldn’t be guaranteed to win as designed against Bismark or Yamato, or even KGV or Richelieu or Littorio.

    A big design incoherence is that the Iowas were modified during construction for radar, both search and fire control. This made up close gun fights obsolete, and increased the hit rate of individual shells so much that their broadside weight of 9 canon is anachronistic. Canon close together interfere enough with each other that at long range, you’d have single barrels in each turret firing, not a 9 gun blast. That makes the weight, complexity, and logistics of 3 triple turrets obsolete as built with radar for long range hits.

    The belt armor is impressive, but a TOW missile from the 1970s would cut right through it.

    A modern battleship would look much different. Any artillery would be single mounts with long barrels optimized for long range, almost certainly with rocket assist and guidance, similar to Excalibur 155mm rounds. It would have a mass of VLS tubes for missiles that can accurately hit from hundreds of miles away or further. For survivability, some type of stealthing, modern compartmentalization to get the block of styrofoam effect, and strategically placed modern types of armor, including maybe modern chobham, Kevlar spall protection, and maybe even ERA if it makes any sense. A comprehensive anti air suite is required if you want solo operations.

    Which looks a lot like a Zumwalt class ship.

  8. Jim

    May 22, 2023 at 12:48 pm

    It’s not about resurrecting the battleship tied up at the museum pier… or building new ones.

    It’s about recognizing why the battleship still resonates in the American imagination.

    The battleship is a symbol of American strength of will & purpose to complete a task.

    i.e., The Battleship Task Force.

    The nick name for the Battleship Missouri is “the Mighty Mo”… perhaps, slightly “Mo” stood for momentum, as the U. S. had the “big mo” going for it as the United States closed out the war with Japan.

    And, of course, the Battleship Missouri, Mighty Mo, had the place of honor of being in Tokyo Bay as the platform for the formal surrender ceremony of Japan to the United States.

    The culmination of the greatest, most consequential, war the United States has ever fought.

    Perhaps, battleships in the American Mind stand for success (even though aircraft carriers were the strategic difference)… a success we haven’t had for a long time… nostalgia is a powerful current in the American Mind… especially in a world, today, where America isn’t so sure about it’s sense of will & purpose and what is the task before us.

    In the day of Mighty Mo, we knew what our purpose was.

  9. LA Grant

    May 22, 2023 at 2:29 pm

    “Naval magnates fret ceaselessly about how to get ordinary folk to rediscover their love affair with their navy and to rededicate themselves to the cause of sea power….”

    Maybe naval magnates should stop participating in the Navy-As-Progressive-Social-Experiment mode, and they might get somewhere.

  10. Duane

    May 22, 2023 at 2:29 pm

    This post is rather strange. We don’t need the People to fall in love with warships. It’s a non-thing, trivial in importance. What we need is a navy that will accomplish its missions in a way that is both cost-effective and is protective of the human souls who sail aboard these ships. Battleships accomplished neither of the above before they were justly removed from the fleet.

    Look, what People seem to be in awe of is Hollywood productions. Hollywood made the PT boats look sexy and effective, instead of practically useless and hell on the sailors who sailed them. But by God, Hollywood made them “beloved”, and really piled on when a former PT boat CO ran for President, making him look like a hero when all he did was lose his boat with no damage to the enemy and lost some crew in the process.

    I think we are far beyond the point in society when people worship warfare and its tools, beyond a small contingent of gadget heads who revel in all the latest and greatest military hardware, arguing over this ship vs. that ship, or this fighter vs. that fighter, or this tank over that tank. That’s what, less than 5% of the taxpaying public are military hardware wonks?

    What the people demand is a military that does its job effectively and doesn’t waste too much of our hard earned tax dollars.

  11. William Downey

    May 22, 2023 at 2:41 pm

    When discussing his Korean War Service, my father said there was no better sound than the freight train roar of an incoming 16-inch round.

    My great-uncle did his midshipman’s cruise on the USS Texas. My uncle served in both USS Massachusetts and South Dakota.

    Carriers are useful in the projection of air power. However, the battleship makes a point. When an adversary sees a battleship steaming off his coast, he sits up and takes notice; Carriers operate over the horizon to underline the point.

    The Montana class battleships were canceled at the end of WWII. Perhaps it is my interest in what was known as ‘the gun club,’ but I often wonder if, properly armed and equipped, there still isn’t a place for them.

  12. Steven Naslund

    May 23, 2023 at 4:27 am

    Boy now we are trying to sell obsolete large surface combatants based on what the public gets excited about. They were useful when the enemy could not detect their location. Imagine the fate of those wonderful WW2 fleets in the age of satellite reconnaissance and cruise missiles. The Ukraine has taught the world that weapons systems that take many years to build and cost billions of dollars are being trumped by cheap expendable missiles and drones. Stop sending our sailors to die at sea, send the machines from right here at home. Global range drones and autonomous systems are the future.

  13. David Chang

    May 23, 2023 at 9:44 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Missile is like a firework, a firework is the first missile without fins.
    Artillery is like a big S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum, flame spitting out.
    Battleships are like the fire support bases on the sea, so I hope the U.S. Navy has the correct street fighter program.

    God bless America.

  14. Tzonarin

    May 23, 2023 at 10:12 am

    I believe the erosion of the pageantry of a battleship is happening all across the Armed Forces and that began in Vietnam. The image of the US military was grossly diminished with Vietnam, with vets who served honorably were disrespected and spat on by angry citizens who disagreed with our role there.

    We saw it come back for a short time in Desert Storm – when Lee Greenwood was writing songs like “God Bless the USA”, the rollout of the HMMWV, Abrams tank, the A10 Thunderbolt – all these new toys for the first Gulf War. But after that, public opinion started to sour again, until 9/11.

    2003 with GWB’s return to the desert began to erode public opinion again. And I don’t think in the 20 years that has passed, we have ever got that back – where, today, the Armed Forces are now thousands of soldiers and sailors behind recruiting goals. Kids don’t see the star-spangled honor that comes from donning the uniform.

    The same kind that is enshrined with battleships. Ships that had one duty – kick butt. Not “present a presence of strength” or “act as a deterrent”. No, when a battleship showed up, someone’s day was gonna get ruined. Wisconsin, Missouri, New Jersey – they were the “roll up sleeves and get ready to punch the enemy in the face” mean. And that’s what gives America that kind of feeling – a feeling we haven’t felt in a long time.

    That’s why the movie Battleship endears me – as campy as it is, watching Mighty Mo bear down on aliens makes me smile whenever I see it.

    Now, there is only a single naval vessel that on active duty that has ever seen combat – and that one was built in the 18th century and sails once a year. Maybe that’s a testament to the deterrent nature of the Navy. Or perhaps it’s an erosion of American strength brought on by liberals and progressives who think bringing our enemies in for coffee and biscotti is a better solution than dropping a 2000 lb high explosive round on their head.

    As a vet myself, it’s sad to watch.

  15. Mark

    May 23, 2023 at 10:18 am

    When a mosquito bites me I smack it.
    What we need is a navy that when provoked by an enemy smacks that enemy.
    The heck with world opinion. Most of today’s leaders aren’t worth much. We need a strong navy. Not necessarily an aggressive navy. But one that has permission to smack anything that is stupid enough to bite it.

  16. David Chang

    May 23, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Missile is like a firework, a firework is the first missile without fins.

    Artillery is like a big S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum, flame spitting out, shells elevate and fall, fly to the intended target, destroy the enemy firmly.

    Battleships are like the fire support bases on the sea, so I hope the U.S. Navy has the correct street fighter program.

    God bless America.

  17. Brent

    May 23, 2023 at 2:07 pm

    Good article. However, I thought it was going to discuss obsolescence. Specifically in regards to our carriers. Similar to Bismarck and Yamato they will fall prey to modern tactics and technology. I don’t believe we can fire enough ordinance to destroy every drone and missile that will come at us. We have to destroy every target. They only need to get thru once. I’d hate for the Ford to be remembered as another Yamato: Too big, too late and outclassed for effective combat in the struggle she found herself in.

    I agree there is a physical presence to the old Battlewagons. The sheer size and the sense of the weight of the steel. They are truly majestic! One can only imagine a volley from the 16″ guns. What an engineering marvel they are! Too bad we don’t take any of the Battlewagons out for a Turnaround Cruise similar to the Constitution. Now THAT would be a 21 gun salute!(I know cost, yadda yadda yadda – we have money for other stupid stuff. The funds could be found.)

    Dr. Holmes: I’ll have to keep my ears open for any speaking engagements you have in the area. Anyone Mattis thinks is “troublesome” should be worth listening to.

    Brent – Portsmouth NH

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