Friends, readers, compatriots, listen to me: the time has come for me to explain the difference between a warship and a battleship.
Earlier this week, a national public radio host asked if ‘battleships’ could protect undersea pipelines in response to allegations of sabotage on the Nord Stream gas pipeline. My response was to grit my teeth, as I always do whenever someone doesn’t acknowledge that the battleships are no longer with us.
The terms “battleship” and “warship” are not synonymous. A battleship is a specific type of ship which is no longer in service. I repeat: the Navy no longer has any active battleships in its fleet.
The Navy’s last battleship, USS Missouri, was decommissioned March 31, 1992, and remained in the reserve fleet until January 12, 1995. (In the 1992 film Under Siege, terrorists led by Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey hijack Missouri on its final voyage, only to be defeated by Steven Segal, who was didn’t work for the Russians at the time.) Two other battleships – USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin – were decommissioned before Missouri, but they part of the reserve fleet until the beginning of the 21st century.
If you’re looking for an umbrella term that applies to all kinds of Navy ships, the proper term is “battleship,” said retired Captain Brent Sadler, a former Navy submariner and expert. Submarines also count as warships even though they are boats and not ships, he explained.
“A ‘warship’ is the umbrella under which all gray-hulled Navy ships are called,” Sadler told Task & Purpose. “Even a tanker should be called a warship. If painted in grey: “warship”.
A battleship is a subcategory of a warship, just like destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers, said Sadler, senior research fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, DC.
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Many years ago, the term “battleship” applied to ships that not only moved a specific volume of water, but also had large guns, Sadler said. For example, cruisers would have 8 and 12 inch guns, while battleships could wield 14 and 16 inch guns. To put this into perspective, the 16-inch guns of a battleship had a maximum range of about 20 nautical miles and each round weighed up to 2,700 pounds.
Although some late 19th century ships can be classified as battleships, the first modern battleship was Britain’s HMS Dreadnought, which was commissioned in 1906 as Britain and Imperial Germany were locked in a race for power. naval armaments before World War I, said retired Captain Jan van Tol, a naval warfare expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Battleships derive from the time (beginning in the 1600s) when the main opposing ‘ships of the line’ fought each other in lines of battle,” Van Tol told Task & Purpose. “The ‘battleship’ really replaced the ‘ship of the line’ once battleships with rotating guns or multi-gun turrets were the primary combat ships. The ideal was for a line of battleships to “cross the T” of the enemy line, so that the line crossing the T could carry all of its main guns while the other line was constrained to fire only its forward guns.
While the term “battleship” may remain synonymous with all warships, Van Tol noted that there were only two major naval battles dominated by battleships. First, in 1905 the Japanese fleet destroyed the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima; then, during World War I, the British and German navies fought to a draw in the 1916 Battle of Jutland, but the engagement proved to be a strategic victory for the British as the German fleet did not s never again went out for battle.
The differences between the terms “battleship” and “battleship” may seem esoteric to people who have never served in the navy, but the names of ships also define their mission.
For example: cruisers were originally intended to operate independently on long-range missions – essentially to travel the world, said retired Captain Jerry Hendrix, who spent 26 years in service asset. Destroyers were built to protect the line of battleships by destroying torpedo boats.
The Navy’s last four Iowa-class battleships were built to fight as part of large fleets and to bombard targets ashore, but during World War II it became apparent that aircraft carriers could project power at distances much greater than the range of a battleship’s guns, Hendrix says Task and Purpose.
Then the Soviets – and later the Chinese – began developing anti-ship cruise missiles capable of hitting targets hundreds of miles away, he said.
“That basically meant the battleship would never approach the enemy so it could use its 16-inch guns,” Hendrix said.
While the big guns of U.S. Navy battleships were used to hit shore targets until the Gulf War, they proved too big and expensive to maintain, Hendrix said.
“The four Iowa-class ships have crews of over 1,000, so they are very expensive to operate; and really the mission of the battleship – whether offshore bombardment or, for that matter, the line of battle – has faded into the past,” Hendrix said. “And so the design became obsolete, as did the mission.”
For me, the battleship is almost a deceased loved one. My grandfather served as a gunnery officer aboard the battleship USS New Mexico from 1942 to 1946. I have a photo of New Mexico in Tokyo harbor for the surrender of Japan in September 1945. My knowledge of the navy are limited compared to my esteemed colleagues in other media, but at least I know what a battleship looks like.
Battleships represent every piece of technology that is vital at one time, then discarded and forgotten the next. Their story encapsulates the tragedy of modernization and reminds us that all glory is fleeting. So please show some respect for these magnificent ships by acknowledging that they are gone.
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