A Nevada class battleship.

Battleship was the name given to the most powerfully gun-armed and most heavily armored classes of warships built between the 15th and 20th centuries. Battleships evolved from northern European cogs, and included carracks and galleons in the 16th Century, ships of the line in the 17th and 18th Centuries, broadside ironclads and Pre-Dreadnoughts in the 19th Century, and Dreadnoughts in the 20th Century. For over 300 years battleships ruled the waves, allowing nations such as the Netherlands, Spain, France and the United Kingdom to create and maintain trade-based overseas empires and restrain their rivals. During World War II (1939-45) they were superseded as the deciding factor at sea by aircraft carriers.

Battleships were designed to engage similar enemy warships with direct or indirect fire from an arsenal of main guns. As a secondary role, they were capable of bombarding targets on and near an enemy coast to support infantry assaults. A third role for the battleships emerged during World War II, when they used their powerful anti-aircraft weaponry to screen aircraft carriers from enemy air attacks. After World War II some continued to be used for shore bombardment and as missile platforms until the early 1990s.

The word "battleship" originated with the development of the line-of-battle tactic, in which ships usually followed each other single-file and engaged the enemy ships to one side, in the mid 17th century. Ships expected to form part of this line were called ships-of-the-line-of-battle or line-of-battle ships, eventually reducing to battleship. They were divided into several classes - first-, second- and third-rates. Fourth- and fifth-rates were frigates, and sixth-rates were sloops (strictly "sloops-of-war"). These vessels were used for communications and reconnaissance and did not usually fight in fleet encounters. Although this classification worked well in the 18th Century, from the middle of the 19th Century, the terminology became confused by the introduction of large steam-powered armoured single-deck ships with a small number of very powerful guns. These were technically frigates because they had a single gundeck, but they were designed to fight as ships of the line, and were the most potent warships of their time.

Battleships after WWII[]

After World War II, several navies retained battleships, but it became clear that they were not worth the considerable cost. During the War it had become clear that battleship-on-battleship engagements like Leyte Gulf or the sinking of the Hood were the exception and not the rule, and that engagement ranges were becoming longer and longer, making heavy gun armament irrelevant. The armor of a battleship was equally irrelevant in the face of a nuclear attack, and nuclear missiles with a range of 100 kilometres or more could be mounted on the Soviet Kildin class destroyer and Whiskey class submarine by the end of the 1950s.

The remaining battleships met a variety of ends. USS Arkansas and Nagato were sunk during the testing of nuclear weapons in Operation Crossroads in 1946. Both battleships proved resistant to nuclear air burst but vulnerable to underwater nuclear explosions. The Italian Giulio Cesare was taken by the Soviets as reparations and renamed Novorossiysk; it was sunk by a German mine in the Black Sea on 29 October 1955. The two Doria class ships were scrapped in the late 1950s. The French Lorraine was scrapped in 1954, Richelieu in 1964 and Jean Bart in 1970. The United Kingdom's four surviving King George V class ships were scrapped in 1957, and Vanguard followed in 1960. All other surviving British battleships had been scrapped in the late 1940s. The Soviet Union's Petropavlovsk was scrapped in 1953, Sevastopol in 1957 and Gangut in 1959. Brazil's Minas Gerais was scrapped in 1954, and her sister ship São Paulo sank en route to the breakers during a storm in 1951. Argentina kept its two Rivadavia class ships until 1956. Chile kept Almirante Latorre (formerly HMS Canada) until 1959. The Turkish battlecruiser Yavuz (formerly the German Goeben, launched in 1911) was scrapped in 1976 after an offer to sell it back to Germany was refused. Sweden had several small coastal defense battleships, one of which, Gustav V, survived until 1970. The Russians also scrapped four large incomplete cruisers in the late 1950s, whilst plans to build new battleships were abandoned following the death of Stalin in 1953. There were also several old ships of the line still used as housing ships or storage depots. Of these, all but HMS Victory were sunk or scrapped by 1957.

The Iowa class battleships gained a new lease of life in the U.S. Navy as fire support ships. Shipborne artillery support is considered by the U.S. Marine Corps as more accurate, more effective and less expensive than aerial strikes. Radar and computer controlled gunfire could be aimed with pinpoint accuracy to target. The United States recommissioned all four Iowa class battleships for the Korean War and the New Jersey for the Vietnam War. These were primarily used for shore bombardment, New Jersey firing seven times more rounds against shore targets in Vietnam than she had in the Second World War.[1]

As part of Navy Secretary John F. Lehman's effort to build a 600-ship Navy in the 1980s, and in response to the commissioning of Kirov by the Soviet Union the United States recommissioned all four Iowa class battleships. On several occasions, battleships were support ships in carrier battle groups, or led their own battle groups in a battleship battle group. These were modernized to carry Tomahawk missiles, with New Jersey seeing action bombarding Lebanon, while Missouri and Wisconsin fired their 16 inch (406 mm) guns at land targets and launched missiles in the Gulf War of 1991. Wisconsin served as the TLAM strike commander for the Persian Gulf, directing the sequence of launches that marked the opening of Operation Desert Storm and firing a total of 24 TLAMs during the first two days of the campaign. This will most likely be the last combat action ever by a battleship. The primary threat to the battleships were Iraqi shore based surface-to-surface missiles; Missouri was targeted by two Iraqi Silkworm missiles, with one missing and another being intercepted by the British destroyer HMS Gloucester.

All four Iowas were decommissioned in the early 1990s, making them the last battleships to see active service. USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin were, until fiscal year 2006, maintained in to a standard where they could be rapidly returned to service as fire support vessels, pending the development of a superior fire support vessel. [2] The U.S. Marine Corps believes that the current naval surface fire support gun and missile programs will not be able to provide adequate fire support for an amphibious assault or onshore operations.[3][4]

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  1. History of World Seapower, Bernard Brett, ISBN 0-603-03723-2, p. 236
  2. Iowa Class Battleship. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved on 2007-03-18.
  3. The USMC has revised its Naval Surface Gunfire Support requirements, leaving some questions as to whether or not the Zumwalt class destroyer can meet the Marine qualifications
  4. United States General Accounting Office. Naval Surface Fires Support. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved on 2007-03-18.