Key Point: Going forward the United States Navy will have to develop a new battleship that is in line with new strategy against China.
In World War II, the Japanese super-battleships Yamato and Musahi each mounted nine 18.1-inch guns, the largest naval guns ever deployed, but they never sank a single American ship. In a conflict decided by naval aviation, Yamato and Musahi were used mainly as flagships and troop transports. Despite their huge armaments, they were steel dinosaurs from an earlier strategic age.
But how do you sink a steel dinosaur? The answer is: “with difficulty.” It took eleven torpedoes and six bombs to sink the Yamato. The Musahi took nineteen torpedoes and seventeen bombs. And at the time they were sunk, both ships were already limping along on patch-up repairs from earlier torpedo strikes. They may have been strategically useless, but the Yamato and Musahi were almost (if not quite) indestructible.
Naval construction requires decades of advance planning, and naval planners are always at risk of fighting the last war. Since the end of World War II, U.S. naval planning has revolved around the aircraft carrier. But world wars are few and far between, and other missions abound. When it comes to countering the rise of China, some of the most frequent missions are freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) requiring no fighting at all.
Over the last several years China has become increasingly aggressive in asserting illegal maritime claims in the South China Sea. In response, the United States regularly conducts FONOPs, sailing destroyers within twelve nautical miles of China’s artificial islands to repudiate Beijing’s claims to sovereign territorial waters. So far, China has been sensible enough not to challenge any of these operations.