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[ 108 ] October 17, 2012 |

After last week’s VP debate, everybody and her damn brother asked me about the Paul Ryan “Navy is smallest since World War I” line.  And so I decided to devote this week’s Diplomat column to just this question:

May 31, 1916 marks a convenient snapshot for the relative position of the USN.  The two largest flotillas in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, had agreed to conduct a joint fleet review in the North Sea.  The capital ship strength of the Grand Fleet consisted of twenty-eight dreadnought battleships and nine modern battlecruisers. These were supported by eight armored cruisers, twenty-six light cruisers, and seventy-eight destroyers. With the exception of the armored cruisers, virtually the entirety of the Grand Fleet had entered service in the seven years prior to the battle.  The High Seas Fleet brought a smaller posse to the party, with only sixteen dreadnoughts and five battlecruisers, plus six pre-dreadnought battleships.  Eleven light cruisers and sixty-one destroyers rounded out the German contribution, which was of similar vintage to that of the Royal Navy. Both the British and the Germans left reserve forces at home.

By comparison, the USN possessed twelve dreadnoughts (including USS Oklahoma, commissioned just weeks before Jutland) and no battlecruisers. The second string was made up of a bewildering array of light, armored, and protected cruisers, few equal to their German or British contemporaries. The USN operated sixty-one destroyers, although most were older and smaller than their European equivalents.

Tragically, the editors at the Diplomat had the good sense to cut this line short:

Nevertheless, the talking point has a certain power because the underlying facts are (somewhat) true, and a full appraisal of the claim requires space, time, and an over-developed appreciation of the silly. The Diplomat has space, I have time, and I regularly interact with three year olds. Let’s take Representative Ryan’s claim seriously.



Comments (108)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Link appears to be broken

  2. Chris Gerrib says:

    I think the link to your Diplomat article is bad.

  3. Bexley says:

    You can get to it here.

    The link in the article tries to take you to rather than

  4. alexander von humbug says:

    He diplomat. Therefore, not in binder.

  5. Robert Farley says:


  6. Hogan says:

    The two largest flotillas in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, had agreed to conduct a joint fleet review in the North Sea.


  7. rea says:

    1916–US fleet–12 dreadnoughts.

    2012–US fleet–ZERO dreadnoughts.

    It is, indeed, shocking how few dreadnoughts there are in the present-day US fleet. Obama ought to be impeached!

    • Rhino says:

      I cannot remember where the question was raised, but someone once asked whether dreadnoughts would survive attacks by modern missiles, an the answer was ‘probably’.

      Is it possible that old school armor might make a comeback?

      • njorl says:

        I’d be surprised if that were true, but even if it is, it’s insignificant. If dreadnoughts could survive missile hits, it is only because there are no dreadnoughts. If someone builds one, the missiles to sink it will also exist.

        • Gepap says:

          why would it be a surprise?

          A large caliber round from a BB’s gun would weigh more than any modern missile and be moving faster than most modern anti-ship missiles would be at the point of impact, and Battleship armor was designed with getting pounded by such ordenance in mind.

          • greylocks says:

            Well, too, there’s sinking it, then there’s rendering it ineffectual.

            A modern guided missile with a high-explosive war head would probably disable the main guns without much trouble, simply because of the accuracy.

          • njorl says:

            Modern missiles use shaped charges to penetrate armor. A “Harpoon” can punch a hole through over 3 times the armor any ship has ever carried.

            • njorl says:

              Hit reply too soon…

              What is likely is that the battleship would keep enough compartments intact to remain afloat. However, 2 or 3 missile hits and it is certainly dead.

            • Gepap says:

              Heavy Armor Piercing shells are also designed to defeat any armor a fellow battleship would carry – I mean, that is sort of the point of them.

              The amount of damage done to a ship will always depend on where the hit is.

              • njorl says:

                But missiles are very accurate. You can reliably hit a ship at the waterline much more consistently with missiles than you could with big guns. Battleships were not designed to survive that.

            • Major Kong says:

              And I could carry 12 “Harpoons” on my old B-52G.

              I think a B-1 or B-52H can carry more than that with an internal rotary launcher.

          • SpiderBat says:

            A large caliber round from a BB’s gun would weigh more than any modern missile and be moving faster than most modern anti-ship missiles would be at the point of impact, and Battleship armor was designed with getting pounded by such ordenance in mind.

            Actually, there are a lot of really fast, really heavy Russian ASCMs out there (though they tend to have pitiful payload fractions). Sectional density (mass/cross sectional area) ends up being roughly comparable; so penetration likely is as well:

            AP Shell from an Iowa’s 16″/50 gun:

            Mass: 1225 kg
            Muzzle velocity: 762 m/s
            Diameter: 406 mm
            Sectional density: ~9500 kg/m^3

            P-700 Granit/SS-N-19 Shipwreck from a Kirov/Oscar:

            Launch Mass: 7000 kg
            Maximum speed: 835 m/s
            Diameter: 853 mm
            Sectional density (launch): 12250 kg/m^3

            • Gepap says:

              Okay, how does that challenge the analysis? Unless the projectile ignited the magazine, most Battleships could survive multiple hits from even big shells, which was sort of the point, otherwise you had a crappy BB. The point of ym answer is that Battleships were made with the idea of getting battered around in mind since in theory you would go into a slugfest with another BB. The point today is to hit your enemy from far beyond the horizon and hope nothing ever gets back to you.

              • SpiderBat says:

                A Shipwreck outwieghs a 16″ AP shell by almost six to one. A Kirov carries 20. You hear of a lot of BBs surviving 120 16″ hits?

                I’m not denying that an Iowa can take more punishment than a Nimitz — I’m just saying they’re not invincible.

      • Gepap says:

        No. The point of heavy armor on a BB was to be able to survive the heavy damage that big guns would inflict (and modern missiles do not cause more damange than a 12 inch armor piercing shell would)in a slugfest against other BB’s. Today’s weapons allow any vessel with good enough sensors to dish more accurate and longer range strikes and the point is to see your emeny first, shoot first, disable or sink them, without having to get hit back. Heavy armor would only make you slower or easier to spot, so the increase in the ability to survive hits is not seen as a real advantage.

        • spud says:

          It certainly was no protection from the small weapons most naval aircraft of WWII were capable of carrying either. See The Arizona, Repulse, Prince of Wales, Musashi, Yamato…

          Small torpedo carrying ships came about as a cheap measure to counter heavy armored ships. The submarine being the apex of this development. Much of the battle of Jutland was fought in a way to minimize the threat to dreadnaughts by smaller torpedo carrying vessels.

          • Gepap says:

            Since when is a 500lb bomb or a torpedo a “small” weapon?

            Do you know how many bombs and torpedos it took to sink the Yamato? Eleven Torpedos and six bombs. The Musashi took 17 bombs and 19 torpedos. The Arizona was a lucky hit (much like the Hood went down so quickly after one lucky hit from Bismarck).

            The point is that a carrier could send dozens of planes to attack a BB long before the BB could get in range of a CV, by which time the only way for the CV to survive would be to get the heck out of dodge.

            • Major Kong says:

              As bombs go a 500lb MK82 is indeed considered “small”, or at least “standard”.

              A 2000 lb MK84 or larger is the preferred weapon for anything hardened.

              Also note that the Hood was not a Battleship, it was a Battlecruiser.

              It had Battleship guns but only cruiser armor. It was designed to outrun what it couldn’t outgun.

              For more on British battlecruisers see “Jutland, battle of”…..

              • Gepap says:

                I know very well the difference between a BB and a Battlecruiser. The deks and superstructure of Battleships were not “hardened” any more than those features on other warships, so a 500 lb bomb would do damage just fine. That is of, course, again, not discussing the torpedos.

            • SpiderBat says:

              Your standard Nimitz has 2 Hornet, and 2 Super Hornet squadrons — 48 strike aircraft. Despite the USN’s general disinterest in the carrier ASuW mission, these can carry two harpoons each (probably four on a shorter range mission). That’s 96 missiles, each with a ~500 lb warhead.

              Even with just one sortie each, that’s a lot more ordnance than it took to kill Musashi.

              • Spuddie says:

                My point is you still have a ship which is very expensive and difficult to produce which is vulnerable to much, much cheaper foes such as attack aircraft, torpedo carrying smaller craft and subs.

              • Gepap says:

                And? Is anyone disputing that the reason a carrier is more powerful than a BB is its ability to launch strikes over the horizon with its airwing? No. The question asked was the relative survivability of a BB vs. most modern warships when struck by modern missiles.

            • Dave S. says:

              Also, the bomb that did the most damage to Arizona was a 16-inch gun round modified to be dropped from an aircraft, simulating the “plunging fire” to which BBs were most vulnerable (again, see HMS Hood).

        • Warren Terra says:

          As I recall (from reading popular histories, I’m in no way an expert), dreadnoughts were built to engage their targets at a range of a dozen miles. Surely they weren’t relying on direct hits of solid shot at that distance – it had to be explosive warheads detonating near the target. Which, as noted, couldn’t easily meet the effectiveness of a much smaller shaped charge pointed straight at the target and detonating at the perfect time.

          • Gepap says:

            “Solid shot”? Battleships were equiped with artillery heavy enough to strike a target at that distance, and getting a shell on target was most certainly the point – not to splash the sea around with HP, which is pointless since the waterline armor of a BB was thick.

            I can’t think of a single BB sunk by HP shells hitting around it, but I can think of several Battlecruisers sunk by lucky direct shell hits to their magazines (Hood, Queen Mary, Indefatigable) and the Lutzow had to be scuttled after the Brits got ten 12 inch or more shells on target.

          • g says:

            No, steel shell punching through steel armor is exactly what they were relying on. The shells were explosive, but if you can’t detonate inside a battleship’s armor then you’re unlikely to hurt it much. All sides spent much effort developing fire-control systems that were accurate enough to get hits at that range.

            • Rhino says:

              Radar proximity fuzes and shaped charge armor piercing shells were well developed by the end of ww2, and I seem to recall something about the Iowa being able to reliably drop shells in a ten foot circle at ten miles distance… The first salvo tracked by radar to correct the fall of the next one…

              Or it might have been bullshit from a technothriller.

              Anyway interesting thread, but I think I prefer my naval combat to be hornblower and Aubrey as opposed to Nimitz and jellicoe.

    • Alex says:

      In fact we have carefully stockpiled the world’s entire supply of dreadnaughts and cunningly disguised them as so-called museum ships.

  8. DrDick says:

    Seems you just got a shout out from DeLong. His header is priceless.

  9. Cody says:

    Tragically, the editors at the Diplomat had the good sense to cut this line short:

    How diplomatic of them!

  10. greylocks says:

    Why is it that size always matters to wingnuts?

  11. Fred says:

    Al Queada, still no navy, still no air force.

  12. Fred says:

    Perhaps our sonar techs must be listening to too much Rush.

  13. El Foley says:

    I’m glad to see someone pick up on this. Romney has used it twice that I have heard and I keep asking WTF. Hey, no carriers, no subs, recommission Old Ironsides

  14. Socraticsilence says:

    Tell you what Paul, I’ll spot you the nearly 6,800 ship Navy from 1945 against the sub 300 ship navy of today, we’ll see what happens buddy.

  15. NMissC says:

    Next we’ll hear this: “Paul Ryan charges that the Obama administration has failed to maintain our chain of coastal fortresses, which are now less well-armed than they were at the start of the Civil War.”

  16. N__B says:

    The Republicans, and particularly their Fox propagandists, favor a navy filled with Dreadalls.

    • Warren Terra says:

      This comment is not getting nearly enough love.

      Maybe if rephrased: The Romney plan reflects a party of Dreadalls looking back to an age of Dreadnaughts.

  17. Antonio Conselheiro says:

    This is goddamn easy.

    In 1865 the Confederate traitors were crushed and at our mercy, and now they control the army and the government. I blame Obama.

  18. wengler says:

    2 tugboats > 1 supercarrier

    Paul Ryan math.

  19. O da humanity says:

    What’s with all this Navy talk? What about the cavalry?

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