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Are We Building Battleships?

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Are We Building Battleships?

 Andrew Zapf


Diagram: H.M.S. Hood (top), a battleship of the British Royal Navy that the German Battleship Bismarck (bottom) sunk with plunging fire on 24 May 1941. The H.M.S. Hood’s hull (commissioned 1920) was designed to withstand flat-trajectory projectiles and was vulnerable to high-angle shells that could pierce her deck. In turn, the more modern Bismarck (commissioned 1939) was disabled by primitive British torpedo planes and eventually sank on 27 May 1941. Photos taken from and, respectively.

At the beginning of the American Civil War formations of Federal and Confederate armies faced off in pseudo-Napoleonic battles where officers trained in Napoleonic doctrines maneuvered closely packed formations against the rifled musket and the minié ball. By 1864, trench warfare, mines, and mortars defined the terrible battles of Cold Harbor and Petersburg – foreshadowing the trenches of World War I. In the battles of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the Prussian Guard Corps attacked with frontal assaults against prepared French defensive positions – winning the battles of Wissembourg, Spicheren, and Gravelotte at enormous cost. [i] Across the imperial armies of Europe large cavalry units filled with sons of the aristocracy prove worthless against the coming storm of steel. Strategies to break the stalemate persisted in using the frontal attacked even as artillery, machine guns and other technologies of the industrial revolution stripped Europe of a generation of men.

Soldiers of the Second World War II suffered lessons unlearned from the First World War. World War I saw the first use of submarine warfare by the Imperial German Navy against the British Isles, but Britain failed to invest seriously in anti-submarine technology until after it began to grapple with Nazi Kriegsmarine in the late 1930s. Battleships being the pride of the Royal Navy, prevented the Admiralty from investing in corvettes, frigates, and coastal defense aircraft - anti-submarine weapons. Even the tried and tested tactics of defeating U-Boat operations with merchant ship convoys was discarded in favor of creating “hunting groups” that appealed to the ego of the Royal Navy, until the tonnage lost to submarines threatened the survival of Great Britain. It took time, tonnage sunk, and the lives of many sailors before the technologies of radar, sonar, aircraft carriers and long-range aircraft were recognized for their value in the war.

Warfare evolved in all of these conflicts. Some of the evolutions resulted from the advent of new technologies on the battlefield and new tactics to accommodate them, or vice versa. The massed formations of the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and World War I all succumbed to the technologies pitted against them. Other evolutions came from doctrinal theories. The Second World War saw the realization of fire and maneuver that the Great War birthed two decades prior. General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s progression through Mao Zedong’s stages of revolutionary warfare in Indochina (1954-1975) saw the evolution of guerrilla tactics into conventional, city-destroying warfare.[ii]

The US presence in Iraq, from 1990-2018, oversaw significant changes in war fighting. Schwartzkopf’s Left Hook during Operation Desert Storm preceded a decade of No-Fly Zone enforcement, and then the Thunder Run of the 2003 invasion. During the occupation, the insurgency evolved, growing in sophistication and complexity as al-Qaeda-trained fighters mixed with Saddamists, Shia militias, and other armed groups – refining their tactics, coordinating spectacular attacks, and attacking the perceived Coalition weakness – domestic public opinion. The US Army Doctrine of Full-Spectrum Operations, fresh from replacing Air-Land Battle, had to be tweaked to include Military, Police, and Border Training Teams (MTTs, PTTs, and BTTs, respectively) while artillery, logistics, and armor soldiers performed non-standard missions counter-insurgency missions in hastily designed up-armored and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

Now, 15 years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US Army is fielding the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) and began employing them - the 1st SFAB in a security force-building mission to Afghanistan.[iii] The SFAB fits neatly into a doctrinal hole that the MTTs, PTTs, and BTTs carved out nearly a decade ago. However, before we can celebrate the arrival of the SFAB, we must all recognize that this conflict continues to evolve. Recall, the trenches were dug at the end of the American Civil War; the convoy system was employed at the end of World War I; and the aircraft carrier was dominant at the end of World War II – after the pre-war ideas had crumbled in the face of the new reality.

Although the US military is heavily engaged in massive and wide-spread state institution building, in Iraq and Syria, a quick survey of current warfare shows other developments worth noting.  In 2014, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine and unidentifiable uniformed fighters, a.k.a. “little green men,” showed up on the battlefield. In 2017, the Iraqi Army re-took the city of Mosul from the Islamic State in an urban battle that witnessed the worst destruction since World War II. In 2018, US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria fought a battle with Russian mercenaries supporting the Assad regime. In the information domain, sophisticated cyber-attacks against civilian and military infrastructure, influence of domestic information consumption, and, yes, election interference are tactics in practice – if not yet widespread use.

The world has prospered while the US assumed a superpower's role of active involvement in maintaining global security – both inside and outside of the Cold War paradigm. However, among many possible ramifications of recent questions regarding the reliability of the United States global security guarantees and commitment to NATO, an increase in the likelihood and number of regional, conventional conflicts; conflicts that erupt under the supposition that the United States will could remain distant. These future conflicts, where institution-building brigades and a reconstruction mindset will take a backseat to the employment of conventional arms and military formations on the battlefield.

Therefore, it is worth asking: Is the US Military committing the same sins as our military predecessors of the past 200 years? Is the MRAP the modern-day equivalent to the pre-World War I mounted cavalry? Will the SFABs be useful in the attrition of urban combat against a near-peer? Even the recapture of Mosul in 2017 indicates that our own wars continue to evolve, and setting aside our innovation to solve the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) problems in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, are we paying enough attention to the wars of 2018, which are currently the testbeds for future global war?[iv]

Are we building battleships?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



Buttar, Prit. Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014.

Deighton, Len. Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The Oxford history of the United States: v. 6.

Thompson, Mark. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919. London: Faber, 2008.

Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.

End Notes

[i] Paradoxically, these assaults affirmed the dominance of the offense over the defense in warfare – so long as the strategist accepted the preeminent characteristic of “energy” and “aggressiveness” in the fighting soldier, as well as the necessity to tolerate massive casualties on the offensive vice the assumed casualties of a prolonged, and therefore inconclusive, defensive campaign.

[ii] The 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu and 1968 battle of Hue offer excellent contrasts to the guerilla warfare of modern memory.

[iii] Ironically, not to Iraq, but to Afghanistan.

[iv] Much should be asked of the US Army Cyber Command and US Army Futures Command mission set, resource, and outlook.

About the Author(s)

Major Andrew Zapf is a Middle East/North African Foreign Area Officer, formerly an Air Defense Artillery officer. His is a 2004 graduate of the United States Military Academy and holds graduate degrees from Duquesne University and Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He has served at the US Embassy – Rabat, Morocco and in NATO Rapid Deployable – Turkey in Istanbul. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Arabic at the United States Military Academy.


I understand your message, which is an importnat one. However, without taking away  from the message, the HMS Hood was a Battle Cruiser, not a Battleship. Battle Cruisers had significantly less armor than Battleships, thus so many were sunk in WWI and the Hood by the Bismark. The Battle Cruiser design turned out to be rather faulty. Second, for the U.S. Navy, the Carrier had  became the primary ship in the Fleet in the 1930's. Thus, even with Depression era budgets, at the outbreak WWII the USN had six (CV's) Aircraft Carriers plus their Air Groups. It was these Carriers and their Air Groups that took the war to the Imperial Japanese Navy during the first half of 1942 and the Battle of Midway

Military organizations have a tendency to move slowly, but better late than never.

SFABs or some other advise/assist unit will be essential to future warfare because we can't fight other countries' wars for them. We can hang around until we catch a punch and it becomes our war, and then we can fight it, but Americans aren't keen on fighting seriously until American interests are involved. Past enemies have been dumb enough to punch us (RMS Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, etc), but they are learning to do things in a more deniable fashion (Russian little green men, etc). Next time the little green men appear, we probably won't be able to justify Team America rolling in to dish out freedom, but the locals can still shoot back in defense of Mom, Dad, and whatever pie they eat in the Baltic states. Little green men are deniable forces, which means they don't get tanks, air support, medals, or state funerals, so properly trained locals will be a strong deterrent.

Also, slurring a military concept as a "battleship" is using a limited view of history. In major navies, aircraft carriers were indisputably the capital ships by the late 1930s. Only the oldest and most stubborn admirals thought the war at sea would be decided by another Jutland between battleships and heavy cruisers; the Americans, British, and Japanese were all training to use carrier planes as their long-range striking force. However, realities of 1940s weapon design and guidance made modern battleships very difficult to sink, so they continued to be valuable--often as antiaircraft weapons.

SFABs would have been nice to have a decade ago, but I don't think they are nearing obsolescence as we try to wind down our small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think we haven't even gotten to the big war that will truly prove their value.

John MacKechnie

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 5:32pm

Very good writing sir. I had to read it three times. 

Building Battleships seems to always be the insult of making a modern day mistake. The mistake to be made is one where your thinking does not evolve to the modern day standard. The other mistake is becoming stagnant in how you evolve all aspects of warfare. Regardless if your aware or accepting of it. For instance the new modern day definition of a naval Cruiser, Destroyer and Frigate has evolved and yet no one in the US Navy wants to acknowledge or accept this fact which seems to be present all around the world. The world mentality of advanced military developments seem to have leaped frogged past the once world leader in forward military thinking. 

I can tell you this if you build today a modern Battleship with WWII thinking and planning. Your building a very big waste of money that will become submerged really fast. But, if you use modern day thinking with modern day planning and what actually works in the modern day battlefield. While looking forward to tomorrow's threats from hypervelocity and from orbital threats. You will have built a battleship that will win the oceans and effectively protect the entire AirCraft Carrier Battle Group. 

The Battleship is only dead in those persons minds who have become stagnant within their dinosaur caves of life. Just remember this. Right now politicians and very powerful military leaders want to build a next generation frigate from people who have not built one of the best frigates on the planet. Just remember this the next time someone says. The US Coast Guard Cutter will be the best choice. Know that they all will be the "R" word or Rong. 


Go and research. The best Frigates in the world are approaching the size of the Burkes. The Chinese Destroyers are longer than the American cruisers. 

For instance in evolution  a French frigate in 1790 was 41 meters. Why are they not 41 meters today? Thank you sir. 


I thank you for adding your thoughtful comments to Are We Building Battleships?, for it made the subject comprehendable to me, as an interested general reader. While I found the blog linked at RealClearDefense, I’ll probably become a regular visitor now that I’m registered.


Fri, 07/20/2018 - 2:08pm

A couple of thoughts for Major Zapf.

First, a recommendation to the author: proofread; or, if you're not a strong writer yourself, ask someone else to proofread for you. You're clearly working to build a professional corpus, and a few comparatively minor mistakes will undermine the credibility of your message with your target audience.

Second, I would recommend, as I have here at SWJ and elsewhere, that the author has the "battleships" observation backwards. Western forces, and particularly the DoD, and especially the Departments of the Army and Air Force, learned precisely the wrong lessons from Desert Storm: they treat it as an unmitigated victory, when it was actually a stunning operational victory and a long-term strategic stalemate. (The stock excuse for this, that the Army was prevented from pressing on to Baghdad and "finishing the job" in 1991, is irrelevant - the Gulf War took place within the strategic context of the day, and that strategic context created the conditions under which the campaign was waged.) Since 1991, American warfighters have taken the sacred trinity of combined arms maneuver, precision air strikes, and RMA-enabled intelligence as an article of faith. Meanwhile, both "near peer" and sub-state actors learned to employ indirect and asymmetric tactics and strategies in order to avoid direct confrontations with Western, and particularly American, forces.

Is this to say that the chance of a so-called "near peer conflict" are nil? Certainly not, though a cursory look at those potential "near peers" would give one pause. In 2013, I wrote an essay for one of my postgraduate courses in which I reviewed about eight years worth of news stories about the Russian military. The overall picture it painted wasn't flattering; and if one has observed closely enough, Russia's recent performance in Syria hasn't been any more flattering. This is why Russia relies upon adjuncts to armed force - subversion via "active measures", espionage via signals/"cyber" and human intelligence, economic leverage via energy exports - instead of actual armed force. Russia's maintenance of an intermediate-range nuclear weapons on its Western border, which the Obama Administration highlighted in its 2010 National Security Strategy, more or less confirm's Russia's strategic anxiety. The other potential "near peer", China, isn't much better off: minimal capacity for long-distance power projection, minimal amphibious transport capacity, underwhelming airlift, a couple of vastly over-hyped aircraft carriers, a million troops who are more of a domestic police force than an expeditionary army, and a more or less respectable submarine fleet. China similarly utilizes adjuncts to armed force as a result. The West must be prepared to employ combined arms maneuver, precision air strikes, and any number of other operational methods against "near peer" competitors; but that preparation must be tempered by reality. The fact that these operations fall within the Army's and Air Force's doctrinal and cultural comfort zones ought to be irrelevant.

To allegorize: the Cold War football tournament ended a long time ago. America High School never got the opportunity to play the highly anticipated match-up against Soviet Union High for the Fulda Gap Trophy. Yes, America has stayed in pretty good shape, and would easily win a re-match; but the Soviet team has really let itself go, so they'd rather talk trash on the Internet and try to steal the pin number to America's car.

Meanwhile, as America High was throwing fake passes, picking fights with rival high schools' marching bands, asking the post-Soviet Baltic states out for a malt, and bragging about how it once scored four touchdowns in a single game, a gang war brewed outside the stadium. American and allied forces have spent the best part of two decades engaged in actual warfare against insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists, and other non-peer actors. It would be similarly foolhardy to focus solely on small wars, counterinsurgency, stability operations, and security force assistance as warfare's sole expression in the foreseeable future. Western forces need fast jets, destroyers, tanks, and combined arms brigades. However, because small wars and other campaigns involving adversaries who don't fall into the "near peer" category have the virtue of actually taking place in the present and recent past, Western forces shall also continue to need Warthogs and Super Tucanos, coastal patrol and amphibious basing vessels, MRAPs, and SFABs. The warfighter of both the present and the future needs to be able to advise and assist a squad of host nation troops on one deployment, then redeploy to another theater to achieve strategic objectives against a nation state actor. The flag and general officers of the 1990's did a disservice to the young warfighters who invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in the new century by failing to realize this.

The real "battleships" are the doctrines that America and its allies etched into stone after 1991, which got thousands of coalition troops and tens or hundreds of thousands of local nationals killed. To present the equipment and doctrine mortgaged with blood and treasure in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since 2001 as "battleships" in favor of the sort of equipment and doctrine that the Army and Air Force prefer, irrespective of reality, is deeply troubling.

That said - and I apologize up front for the cynicism - if this piece is the author's confession of faith to the United States Army in the same sense of my confession of faith to the Roman Catholic Church (which is to say, I believe most of it, but there are some doctrines that are clearly ridiculous), then I get it. Sometimes, one must parrot the party line in order to achieve their objectives, and I'm in no position to judge.