Military and Police

History Matters: Super Battleships to Super Missiles

The Japanese super battleships sounded incredibly scary on paper, but they ended up having very little effect on World War II. The examples of those battleships provide numerous, important lessons for today.

The new ships, Musashi and Yamato, were literally in their own class. They displaced 73,000 tons, which was 40 percent larger than the Americans’ Iowa-class battleship (though the Iowa-class was designed to be a fast battleship, and it was still within the limits of the treaty.) The super battleships had nine 18-inch guns that weighed up to 3,000 tons each. The Iowa-class battleships had only 16-inch guns. The combined tonnage of the Japanese guns weighed more than America’s battleships from World War I (New York-, Wyoming-, and Nevada-class.) They could hit targets from 25 miles away and could be fired once every 40 seconds.

The super battleships had almost 200 anti-aircraft. On top of that, their 18-inch barrels could fire “beehive rounds” which acted as chaff to distract and destroy enemy aircraft. The ships had extensive armor that was 16 inches thick in some places and they had decent speed. While not the fastest on the water, they could still reach a top speed of 27 knots. That was only slightly slower than the Iowa-class ships that were classified as fast battleships.

Despite their impressive armaments, the super battleships had little effect on the war. They were so expensive and important that the Japanese often kept them away from intense battles until late in the war when they were heavily outnumbered and strategically limited. The ships ended up spending so much time in port, especially after a submarine attack damaged one of them, that one of the super battleships was called the Hotel Yamato. This meant that these ships missed critical engagements like Solomon Islands Campaigns and Battle of Guadalcanal where they could have made a difference in the strategic balance of the war. Much like the King Tiger, the weight of the battleships combined with their high speed meant they needed prodigious amounts of fuel. This compounded their limited use for much of the war.

Once they were committed late in the war, their design flaws and deficiencies in strategy and training were revealed. The anti-aircraft guns of the super battleships ended up being inadequate due to a combination of technology and lack of combat experience from the crew. The beehive rounds were more annoying to opposing pilots than useful in shooting them down, and the Japanese fleets did not have extensive practice acting like a fleet. The individually amazing battleships were not well served by their escort destroyers. Nor were they well served being sent into almost suicidal missions against larger numbers of more experienced American pilots and sailors.

15-inch guns displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London, largely dwarfed by those on the Japanese battleships. (Credit: Morgan Deane/personal collection)

This is interesting on its own, but should be a powerful lesson to current readers. Things like battleships are just tools. Wars are not simply a math contest where a person subtracts size of gun barrels or counts how many missiles they have. Weapon systems are used by soldiers and seamen during times of intense stress and they are directed by an overall strategy. Thus the Japanese battleship looked rather impressive and scary. But they were used in a faulty manner by Japanese strategists that limited their value. The battleships were not prepared for the intense fire from aircraft, and the carrier ended up being more important than the battleship in World War II. Their fuel usage wasn’t properly considered during their development and they ended up having little effect on the war.

This is something to remember when reading about weapon systems like the Carrier-Killing Missile of China or the hypersonic missile coming from Putin and the Russians. Their weapon systems must be used by militaries in a time of war and according to their strategy, all of which may be lacking at the onset of war.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Morgan Deane

Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming book Decisive Battles in Chinese history, as well as Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

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