The military list you want.
Key point:Our metrics concentrate on the strategic utility of specific military platforms classes, rather than solely on their technical capabilities.
(This is a series of 5 pieces combined for your reading pleasure that have ranked as some of our most popular ever.)
5 Best Battleships:
Ranking the greatest battleships of all time is a tad easier than ranking naval battles. Both involve comparing apples with oranges. But at least taking the measure of individual men-of-war involves comparing one apple with one orange. That’s a compact endeavor relative to sorting through history to discern how seesaw interactions shaped the destinies of peoples and civilizations.
Still, we need some standard for distinguishing between battlewagons. What makes a ship great? It makes sense, first of all, to exclude any ship before the reign of Henry VIII. There was no line-of-battle ship in the modern sense before England’s “great sea-king” founded the sail-driven Royal Navy in the 16th century. Galley warfare was quite a different affair from lining up capital ships and pounding away with naval gunnery.
One inescapable chore is to compare ships’ technical characteristics. A recent piece over at War Is Boring revisits an old debate among battleship and World War II enthusiasts. Namely, who would’ve prevailed in a tilt between a U.S. Navy Iowa-class dreadnought and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Yamato? Author Michael Peck restates the common wisdom from when I served in mighty Wisconsin, last of the battleships: it depends on who landed the first blow. Iowas commanded edges in speed and fire control, while Yamato and her sister Musashi outranged us and boasted heavier weight of shot. We would’ve made out fine had we closed the range before the enemy scored a lucky hit from afar. If not, things may have turned ugly.
Though not in so many words, Peck walks through the basic design features that help qualify a battleship for history’s elite — namely guns, armor, and speed. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Offensive punch, defensive resiliency, and speed remain the hallmarks of any surface combatant even in this missile age. Note, however, that asymmetries among combat vessels result in large part from the tradeoffs naval architects must make among desirable attributes.
Only sci-fi lets shipwrights escape such choices. A Death Star of the sea would sport irresistible weaponry, impenetrable armor, and engines able to drive the vessel at breakneck speed. But again, you can’t have everything in the real world. Weight is a huge challenge. A battleship loaded down with the biggest guns and thickest armor would waddle from place to place. It would make itself an easy target for nimbler opponents or let them run away. On the other hand, assigning guns and speed top priority works against rugged sides. A ship that’s fleet of foot but lightly armored exposes its innards and crew to enemy gunfire. And so forth. Different navies have different philosophies about tradeoffs. Hence the mismatches between Yamato and Iowa along certain parameters. Thus has it always been when fighting ships square off.
But a battleship is more than a machine. Machines neither rule the waves nor lose out in contests for mastery. People do. People ply the seas, and ideas about shiphandling and tactics guide their combat endeavors. Great Britain’s Royal Navy triumphed repeatedly during the age of sail. Its success owed less to superior materiel — adversaries such as France and the United States sometimes fielded better ships — than to prolonged voyages that raised seamanship and gunnery to a high art. Indeed, a friend likes to joke that the 18th century’s finest warship was a French 74-gun ship captured — and crewed — by Royal Navy mariners. The best hardware meets the best software.
That’s why in the end, debating Jane’s Fighting Ships entries — lists of statistics — for Iowa, Yamato, and their brethren from other times and places fails to satisfy. What looks like the best ship on paper may not win. A ship need not outmatch its opponents by every technical measure. It needs to be good enough. That is, it must match up well enough to give an entrepreneurial crew, mindful of the tactical surroundings, a reasonable chance to win. The greatest battleship thus numbers among the foremost vessels of its age by material measures, and is handled by masterful seamen.
But adding the human factor to the mix still isn’t enough. There’s an element of opportunity, of sheer chance. True greatness comes when ship and crew find themselves in the right place at the right time to make history. A battleship’s name becomes legend if it helps win a grand victory, loses in dramatic fashion, or perhaps accomplishes some landmark diplomatic feat. A vessel favored (or damned) by fortune, furthermore, becomes a strategic compass rose. It becomes part of the intellectual fund on which future generations draw when making maritime strategy. It’s an artifact of history that helps make history.
So we arrive at one guy’s gauge for a vessel’s worth: strong ship, iron men, historical consequence. In effect, then, I define greatest as most iconic. Herewith, my list of history’s five most iconic battleships, in ascending order:
The German Navy’s Bismarck lived a short life that supplies the stuff of literature to this day. Widely considered the most capable battleship in the Atlantic during World War II, Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, with a single round from her main battery. On the other hand, the leadership’s martial spirit proved brittle when the going got tough. In fact, it shattered at the first sharp rap. As commanders’ resolve went, so went the crew’s.
Notes Bernard Brodie, the dreadnought underwent an “extreme oscillation” in mood. Exaltation stoked by the encounter with Hood gave way to despair following a minor torpedo strike from a British warplane. Admiral Günther Lütjens, the senior officer on board, gathered Bismarck crewmen after the air attack and “implored them to meet death in a fashion becoming to good Nazis.” A great coach Lütjens was not. The result? An “abysmally poor showing” in the final showdown with HMS Rodney, King George V, and their entourage. One turret crew fled their guns. Turret officers reportedly kept another on station only at gunpoint. Marksmanship and the guns’ rate of fire — key determinants of victory in gunnery duels — suffered badly.
In short, Bismarck turned out to be a bologna flask (hat tip: Clausewitz), an outwardly tough vessel that shatters at the slightest tap from within. In 1939 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder lamented that the German surface fleet, flung into battle long before it matured, could do little more than “die with honor.” Raeder was righter than he knew. Bismarck‘s death furnishes a parable that captivates navalists decades hence. How would things have turned out had the battlewagon’s human factor proved less fragile? We’ll never know. Doubtless her measure of honor would be bigger.
As noted at the outset, Yamato was an imposing craft by any standard. She displaced more than any battleship in history, as much as an early supercarrier, and bore the heaviest armament. Her mammoth 18-inch guns could sling 3,200-lb. projectiles some 25 nautical miles. Armor was over two feet thick in places. Among the three attributes of warship design, then, Yamato‘s designers clearly prized offensive and defensive strength over speed. The dreadnought could steam at 27 knots, not bad for a vessel of her proportions. But that was markedly slower than the 33 knots attainable by U.S. fast battleships.
Like Bismarck, Yamato is remembered mainly for falling short of her promise. She provides another cautionary tale about human fallibility. At Leyte Gulf in October 1944, a task force centered on Yamato bore down on the transports that had ferried General Douglas MacArthur’s landing force ashore on Leyte, and on the sparse force of light aircraft carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts guarding the transports from seaward assault.
Next ensued the immortal charge of the tin-can sailors. The outclassed American ships charged Yamato and her retinue. Like Lütjens, Admiral Takeo Kurita, the task-force commander, appeared to wilt under less-than-dire circumstances. Historians still argue about whether he mistook Taffy 3, the U.S. Navy contingent, for a far stronger force; lost his nerve; or simply saw little point in sacrificing his ships and men. Whatever the case, Kurita ordered his fleet to turn back — leaving MacArthur’s expeditionary force mostly unmolested from the sea.
Yamato met a quixotic fate, though less ignominious than Bismarck‘s. In April 1945 the superbattleship was ordered to steam toward Okinawain company with remnants of the surface fleet, there to contest the Allied landings. The vessel would deliberately beach itself offshore, becoming an unsinkable gun emplacement until it was destroyed or its ammunition was exhausted. U.S. naval intelligence got wind of the scheme, however, and aerial bombardment dispatched Yamato before she could reach her destination. A lackluster end for history’s most fearsome battlewagon.
Iowa and New Jersey were the first of the Iowa class and compiled the most enviable fighting records in the class, mostly in the Pacific War. Missouri was no slouch as a warrior, but — alone on this list — she’s celebrated mainly for diplomatic achievements rather than feats of arms. General MacArthur accepted Japan’s surrender on her weatherdecks in Tokyo Bay, leaving behind some of the most enduring images from 20th-century warfare. Missouri has been a metaphor for how to terminate big, open-ended conflicts ever since. For instance, President Bush the Elder invoked the surrender in his memoir. Missouri supplied a measuring stick for how Desert Storm might unfold. (And as it happens, a modernized Missouri was in Desert Storm.)
Missouri remained a diplomatic emissary after World War II. The battlewagon cruised to Turkey in the early months after the war, as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and communist insurgencies menaced Greece and Turkey. Observers interpreted the voyage as a token of President Harry Truman’s, and America’s, commitment to keeping the Soviet bloc from subverting friendly countries. Message: the United States was in Europe to stay. Missouri thus played a part in the development of containment strategy while easing anxieties about American abandonment. Naval diplomacy doesn’t get much better than that.
Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s flagship is an emblem for maritime command. The British-built Mikasa was arguably the finest battleship afloat during the fin de siècle years, striking the best balance among speed, protection, and armament. The human factor was strong as well. Imperial Japanese Navy seamen were known for their proficiency and élan, while Tōgō was renowned for combining shrewdness with derring-do. Mikasa was central to fleet actions in the Yellow Sea in 1904 and the Tsushima Strait in 1905 — battles that left the wreckage of two Russian fleets strewn across the seafloor. The likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan considered Tsushima a near-perfect fleet encounter.
Like the other battleships listed here, Mikasa molded how subsequent generations thought about diplomacy and warfare. IJN commanders of the interwar years planned to replicate Tsushima Strait should Japan fall out with the United States. More broadly, Mikasa and the rest of the IJN electrified peoples throughout Asia and beyond. Japan, that is, proved that Western imperial powers could be beaten in battle and ultimately expelled from lands they had subjugated. Figures ranging from Sun Yat-sen to Mohandas Gandhi to W. E. B. Du Bois paid homage to Tsushima, crediting Japan with firing their enthusiasm for overthrowing colonial rule.
Mikasa, then, was more than the victor in a sea fight of modest scope. And her reputation outlived her strange fate. The vessel returned home in triumph following the Russo-Japanese War, only to suffer a magazine explosion and sink. For the Japanese people, the disaster confirmed that they had gotten a raw deal at the Portsmouth Peace Conference. Nevertheless, it did little to dim foreign observers’ enthusiasm for Japan’s accomplishments.Mikasa remained a talisman.
Topping this list is the only battleship from the age of sail. HMS Victory was a formidable first-rate man-of-war, cannon bristling from its three gun decks. But her fame comes mainly from her association with Lord Horatio Nelson, whom Mahan styles “the embodiment of the sea power of Great Britain.” In 1805 Nelson led his outnumbered fleet into combat against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, near Gibraltar. Nelson and right-hand man Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood led columns of ships that punctured the enemy line of battle. The Royal Navy crushed its opponent in the ensuing melee, putting paid to Napoleon’s dreams of invading the British Isles.
Felled on board his flagship that day, Nelson remains a synonym for decisive battle. Indeed, replicating Trafalgar became a Holy Grail for naval strategists across the globe. Permanently drydocked at Portsmouth, Victory is a shrine to Nelson and his exploits — and the standard of excellence for seafarers everywhere. That entitles her to the laurels of history’s greatest battleship.
Surveying this list of icons, two battleships made the cut because of defeats stemming from slipshod leadership, two for triumphs owing to good leadership, and one for becoming a diplomatic paragon. That’s not a bad reminder that human virtues and frailties — not wood, or metal, or shot — are what make the difference in nautical enterprises.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College
5 Best Aircraft Carriers:
Anyone who’s tried to compare one piece of kit—ships, aircraft, weaponry of various types—to another will testify to how hard this chore is. Ranking aircraft carriers is no exception. Consulting the pages of Jane’s Fighting Ships or Combat Fleets of the World sheds some light on the problem. For instance, a flattop whose innards house a nuclear propulsion plant boasts virtually unlimited cruising range, whereas a carrier powered by fossil fuels is tethered to its fuel source. As Alfred Thayer Mahan puts it, a conventional warship bereft of bases or a coterie of logistics ships is a “land bird” unable to fly far from home.
Or, size matters. The air wing—the complement of interceptors, attack planes and support aircraft that populate a carrier’s decks—comprise its main battery or primary armament. The bigger the ship, the bigger the hangar and flight decks that accommodate the air wing.
Nor, as U.S. Navy carrier proponents like to point out, is the relationship between a carrier’s tonnage and number of aircraft it can carry strictly linear. Consider two carriers that dominate headlines in Asia. Liaoning, the Chinese navy’s refitted Soviet flattop, displaces about sixty-five thousand tons and sports twenty-six fixed-wing combat aircraft and twenty-four helicopters. Not bad. USS George Washington, however, tips the scales at around one hundred thousand tons but can operate some eighty-five to ninety aircraft.
And the disparity involves more than raw numbers of airframes. George Washington‘s warplanes are not just more numerous but generally more capable than their Chinese counterparts. U.S. flattops boast steam catapults to vault larger, heavier-laden aircraft into the wild blue. Less robust carriers use ski jumps to launch aircraft. That limits the size, fuel capacity, and weapons load—and thus the range, flight times and firepower—of their air wings. Larger, more capable carriers, then, can accommodate a larger, more capable, and changing mixes of aircraft with greater ease than their lesser brethren. Aircraft carriers’ main batteries were modular before modular was cool.
And yet straight-up comparisons can mislead. The real litmus test for any man-of-war is its capacity to fulfill the missions for which it was built. In that sense George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, may not be “superior” to USS America, the U.S. Navy’s latest amphibious helicopter carrier, or to Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force “helicopter destroyers”—a.k.a. light aircraft carriers—despite a far more lethal air wing and other material attributes. Nor do carriers meant to operate within range of shore-based fire support—tactical aircraft, anti-ship missiles—necessarily need to measure up to a Washington on a one-to-one basis. Land-based implements of sea power can be the great equalizer. Like any weapon system, then, a great carrier does the job for which it was designed superbly.
And lastly, there’s no separating the weapon from its user. A fighting ship isn’t just a hunk of steel but a symbiosis of crewmen and materiel. The finest aircraft carrier is one that’s both well-suited to its missions and handled with skill and derring-do when and where it matters most. Those three indices—brute material capability, fitness for assigned missions, a zealous crew—are the indices for this utterly objective, completely indisputable list of the Top Five Aircraft Carriers of All Time.
5. USS Midway (CV-41):
Now a museum ship on the San Diego waterfront, Midway qualifies for this list less for great feats of arms than for longevity, and for being arguably history’s most versatile warship. In all likelihood she was the most modified. Laid down during World War II, the flattop entered service just after the war. During the Cold War she received an angled flight deck, steam catapults, and other trappings befitting a supercarrier. Indeed, Midway‘s service spanned the entire Cold War, winding down after combat action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991. Sheer endurance and flexibility entitles the old warhorse to a spot on this list.
4. USS Franklin (CV-13):
If Midway deserves a place mainly for technical reasons, the Essex-class carrier Franklin earns laurels for the resiliency of her hull and fortitude of her crew in battle. She was damaged in heavy fighting at Leyte Gulf in 1944. After refitting at Puget Sound Navy Yard, the flattop returned to the Western Pacific combat theater. In March 1945, having ventured closer to the Japanese home islands than any carrier to date, she fell under surprise assault by a single enemy dive bomber. Two semi-armor-piercing bombs penetrated her decks. The ensuing conflagration killed 724 and wounded 265, detonated ammunition below decks, and left the ship listing 13 degrees to starboard. One hundred six officers and 604 enlisted men remained on board voluntarily, bringing Franklin safely back to Pearl Harbor and thence to Brooklyn Navy Yard. Her gallantry in surviving such a pounding and returning to harbor merits the fourth position on this list.
Admiral Chūichi Nagumo’s flagship serves as proxy for the whole Pearl Harbor strike force, a body composed of all six Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) frontline carriers and their escorts. Nagumo’s was the most formidable such force of its day. Commanders and crewmen, moreover, displayed the audacity to do what appeared unthinkable—strike at the U.S. Pacific Fleet at its moorings thousands of miles away. Extraordinary measures were necessary to pull off such a feat. For example, freshwater tanks were filled with fuel to extend the ships’ range and make a transpacific journey possible—barely.
The Pearl Harbor expedition exposed logistical problems that plagued the IJN throughout World War II. Indeed, Japan’s navy never fully mastered the art of underway replenishment or built enough logistics ships to sustain operations far from home. As a result, Nagumo’s force had too little time on station off Oahu to wreck the infrastructure the Pacific Fleet needed to wage war. And, admittedly, Akagi was lost at the Battle of Midway, not many months after it scaled the heights of operational excellence. Still, you have to give Akagi and the rest of the IJN task force their due. However deplorable Tokyo’s purposes in the Pacific, her aircraft-carrier force ranks among the greatest of all time for sheer boldness and vision.
2. HMS Hermes (now the Indian Navy’s Viraat):
It’s hard to steam thousands of miles into an enemy’s environs, fight a war on his ground, and win. And yet the Centaur-class flattop Hermes, flagship of a hurriedly assembled Royal Navy task force, pulled it off during the Falklands War of 1982. Like Midway, the British carrier saw repeated modifications, most recently for service as an anti-submarine vessel in the North Atlantic. Slated for decommissioning, her air wing was reconfigured for strike and fleet-air-defense missions when war broke out in the South Atlantic. For flexibility, and for successfully defying the Argentine contested zone, Hermes rates second billing here.
1. USS Enterprise (CV-6):
Having joined the Pacific Fleet in 1939, the Yorktown-class carrier was fortunate to be at sea on December 7, 1941, and thus to evade Nagumo’s bolt from the blue. Enterprise went on to become the most decorated U.S. Navy ship of World War II, taking part in eighteen of twenty major engagements of the Pacific War. She sank, or helped sink, three IJN carriers and a cruiser at the Battle of Midway in 1942; suffered grave damage in the Solomons campaign, yet managed to send her air wing to help win the climatic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal; and went on to fight in such engagements as the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa. That’s the stuff of legend. For compiling such a combat record, Enterprise deserves to be known as history’s greatest aircraft carrier.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College
5 Best Submarines:
There have been three great submarine campaigns in history, and one prolonged duel. The First and Second Battles of the Atlantic pitted German U-boats against the escorts and aircraft of the United Kingdom and the United States. The Germans very nearly won World War I with the first campaign, and badly drained Allied resources in the second. In the third great campaign, the submarines of the US Navy destroyed virtually the entire commercial fleet of Japan, bringing the Japanese economy to its knees. US subs also devastated the Imperial Japanese Navy, sinking several of Tokyo’s most important capital ships.
But the period most evocative of our modern sense of submarine warfare was surely the forty year duel between the submarines of the USSR and the boats of the various NATO navies. Over the course of the Cold War, the strategic nature of the submarine changed; it moved from being a cheap, effective killer of capital ships to a capital ship in its own right. This was especially the case with the boomers, submarines that carried enough nuclear weapons to kill millions in a few minutes.
As with previous “5 Greatest” lists, the answers depend on the parameters; different sets of metrics will generate different lists. Our metrics concentrate on the strategic utility of specific submarine classes, rather than solely on their technical capabilities.
· Was the submarine a cost-effective solution to a national strategic problem?
· Did the submarine compare favorably with its contemporaries?
· Was the submarine’s design innovative?
And with that, the five best submarines of all time:
The eleven boats of the U-31 class were constructed between 1912 and 1915. They operated in both of the periods of heavy action for German U-boats, early in the war before the suspension of unrestricted warfare, and again in 1917 when Germany decided to go for broke and cut the British Empire off at the knees. Four of these eleven boats (U-35, U-39, U-38, and U-34) were the four top killers of World War I; indeed, they were four of the five top submarines of all time in terms of tonnage sunk (the Type VII boat U-48 sneaks in at number 3). U-35, the top killer, sank 224 ships amounting to over half a million tons.
The U-31 boats were evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; they represented the latest in German submarine technology for the time, but did not differ dramatically from their immediate predecessors or successors. These boats had good range, a deck gun for destroying small shipping, and faster speeds surfaced than submerged. These characteristics allowed the U-31 class and their peers to wreak havoc while avoiding faster, more powerful surface units. They did offer a secure, stealthy platform for carrying out a campaign that nearly forced Great Britain from the war. Only the entry of the United States, combined with the development of innovative convoy tactics by the Royal Navy, would stifle the submarine offensive. Three of the eleven boats survived the war, and were eventually surrendered to the Allies.
The potential for a submarine campaign against the Japanese Empire was clear from early in the war. Japanese industry depended for survival on access to the natural resources of Southeast Asia. Separating Japan from those resources could win the war. However, the pre-war USN submarine arm was relatively small, and operated with poor doctrine and bad torpedoes. Boats built during the war, including primarily the Gato and Balao class, would eventually destroy virtually the entire Japanese merchant marine.
The Balao class represented very nearly the zenith of the pre-streamline submarine type. War in the Pacific demanded longer ranges and more habitability than the relatively snug Atlantic. Like their predecessors the Gato, the Balaos were less maneuverable than the German Type VII subs, but they made up for this in strength of hull and quality of construction. Compared with the Type VII, the Balaos had longer range, a larger gun, more torpedo tubes, and a higher speed. Of course, the Balaos operated in a much different environment, and against an opponent less skilled in anti-submarine warfare. The greatest victory of a Balao was the sinking of the 58000 ton HIJMS Shinano by Archerfish.
Eleven of 120 boats were lost, two in post-war accidents. After the war Balao class subs were transferred to several friendly navies, and continued to serve for decades. One, the former USS Tusk, remains in partial commission in Taiwan as Hai Pao.
In some ways akin to the Me 262, the Type XXI was a potentially war-winning weapon that arrived too late to have serious effect. The Type XXI was the first mass produced, ocean-going streamlined or “true” submarine, capable of better performance submerged than on the surface. It gave up its deck gun in return for speed and stealth, and set the terms of design for generations of submarines.
Allied anti-submarine efforts focused on identifying boats on the surface (usually in transit to their patrol areas) then vectoring killers (including ships and aircraft) to those areas. In 1944 the Allies began developing techniques for fighting “schnorkel” U-boats that did not need to surface, but remained unprepared for combat against a submarine that could move at 20 knots submerged.
In effect, the Type XXI had the stealth to avoid detection prior to an attack, and the speed to escape afterward. Germany completed 118 of these boats, but because of a variety of industrial problems could only put four into service, none of which sank an enemy ship. All of the Allies seized surviving examples of the Type XXI, using them both as models for their own designs and in order to develop more advanced anti-submarine technologies and techniques. For example, the Type XXI was the model for the Soviet “Whiskey” class, and eventually for a large flotilla of Chinese submarines.
We take for granted the most common form of today’s nuclear deterrent; a nuclear submarine, bristling with missiles, capable of destroying a dozen cities a continent away. These submarines provide the most secure leg of the deterrent triad, as no foe could reasonably expect to destroy the entire submarine fleet before the missiles fly.
The secure submarine deterrent began in 1960, with the USS George Washington. An enlarged version of the Skipjack class nuclear attack sub, George Washington’s design incorporated space for sixteen Polaris ballistic missiles. When the Polaris became operational, USS George Washington had the capability from striking targets up to 1000 miles distant with 600 KT warheads. The boats would eventually upgrade to the Polaris A3, with three warheads and a 2500 mile range. Slow relative to attack subs but extremely quiet, the George Washington class pioneered the “go away and hide” form of nuclear deterrence that is still practiced by five of the world’s nine nuclear powers.
And until 1967, the George Washington and her sisters were the only modern boomers. Their clunky Soviet counterparts carried only three missiles each, and usually had to surface in order to fire. This made them of limited deterrent value. But soon, virtually every nuclear power copied the George Washington class. The first “Yankee” class SSBN entered service in 1967, the first Resolution boat in 1968, and the first of the French Redoutables in 1971. China would eventually follow suit, although the PLAN’s first genuinely modern SSBNs have only entered service recently. The Indian Navy’s INS Arihant will likely enter service in the next year or so.
The five boats of the George Washington class conducted deterrent patrols until 1982, when the SALT II Treaty forced their retirement. Three of the five (including George Washington) continued in service as nuclear attack submarines for several more years.
Immortalized in the Tom Clancy novels Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, the U.S. Los Angeles class is the longest production line of nuclear submarines in history, constituting sixty-two boats and first entering service in 1976. Forty-one subs remain in commission today, continuing to form the backbone of the USN’s submarine fleet.
The Los Angeles (or 688) class are outstanding examples of Cold War submarines, equally capable of conducting anti-surface or anti-submarine warfare. In wartime, they would have been used to penetrate Soviet base areas, where Russian boomers were protected by rings of subs, surface ships, and aircraft, and to protect American carrier battle groups.
In 1991, two Los Angeles class attack boats launched the first ever salvo of cruise missiles against land targets, ushering in an entirely new vision of how submarines could impact warfare. While cruise missile armed submarines had long been part of the Cold War duel between the United States and the Soviet Union, most attention focused either on nuclear delivery or anti-ship attacks. Submarine launched Tomahawks gave the United States a new means for kicking in the doors of anti-access/area denial systems. The concept has proven so successful that four Ohio class boomers were refitted as cruise missile submarines, with the USS Florida delivering the initial strikes of the Libya intervention.
The last Los Angeles class submarine is expected to leave service in at some point in the 2020s, although outside factors may delay that date. By that time, new designs will undoubtedly have exceeded the 688 in terms of striking land targets, and in capacity for conducting anti-submarine warfare. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles class will have carved out a space as the sub-surface mainstay of the world’s most powerful Navy for five decades.
Fortunately, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct conflict during the Cold War, meaning that many of the technologies and practices of advanced submarine warfare were never employed in anger. However, every country in the world that pretends to serious maritime power is building or acquiring advanced submarines. The next submarine war will look very different from the last, and it’s difficult to predict how it will play out. We can be certain, however, that the fight will be conducted in silence.
Honorable Mention: Ohio, 260O-21, Akula, Alfa, Seawolf, Swiftsure, I-201, Kilo, S class, Type VII
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
5 Best Bombers:
Bombers are the essence of strategic airpower. While fighters have often been important to air forces, it was the promise of the heavy bomber than won and kept independence for the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force. At different points in time, air forces in the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Italy have treated bomber design and construction as a virtually all-consuming obsession, setting fighter and attack aviation aside.
However, even the best bombers are effective over only limited timespans. The unlucky state-of-the-art bombers of the early 1930s met disaster when put into service against the pursuit aircraft of the late 1930s. The B-29s that ruled the skies over Japan in 1945 were cut to pieces above North Korea in 1950. The B-36 Peacemaker, obsolete before it was even built, left service in a decade. Most of the early Cold War bombers were expensive failures, eventually to be superseded by ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
States procure bombers, like all weapons, to serve strategic purposes. This list employs the following metrics of evaluation:
· Did the bomber serve the strategic purpose envisioned by its developers?
· Was the bomber a sufficiently flexible platform to perform other missions, and to persist in service?
· How did the bomber compare with its contemporaries in terms of price, capability, and effectiveness?
And with that, the five best bombers of all time:
Handley Page Type O 400:
The first strategic bombing raids of World War I were carried out by German zeppelins, enormous lighter than aircraft that could travel at higher altitudes than the interceptors of the day, and deliver payloads against London and other targets. Over time, the capabilities of interceptors and anti-aircraft artillery grew, driving the Zeppelins to other missions. Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and others began working on bombers capable of delivering heavy loads over long distance, a trail blazed (oddly enough) by the Russian Sikorsky Ilya Muromets.
Even the modest capabilities of the early bombers excited the airpower theorists of the day, who imagined the idea of fleets of bombers striking enemy cities and enemy industry. The Italians developed the Caproni family of bombers, which operated in the service of most Allied countries at one time or another. German Gotha bombers would eventually terrorize London again, catalyzing the Smuts Report and the creation of the world’s first air force.
Faster and capable of carrying more bombs than either the Gotha IVs or the Caproni Ca.3, the Type O 400 had a wingspan nearly as large as the Avro Lancaster. With a maximum speed of 97 miles per hour with a payload of up to 2000 lbs, O 400s were the mainstay of Hugh Trenchard’s Independent Air Force near the end of the war, a unit which struck German airfields and logistics concentration well behind German lines. These raids helped lay the foundation of interwar airpower theory, which (at least in the US and the UK) envisioned self-protecting bombers striking enemy targets en masse.
Roughly 600 Type O bombers were produced during World War I, with the last retiring in 1922. Small numbers served in the Chinese, Australian, and American armed forces.
Junkers Ju 88:
The Junkers Ju-88 was one of the most versatile aircraft of World War II. Although it spent most of its career as a medium bomber, it moonlighted as a close attack aircraft, a naval attack aircraft, a reconnaissance plane, and a night fighter. Effective and relatively cheap, the Luftwaffe used the Ju 88 to good effect in most theaters of war, but especially on the Eastern Front and in the Mediterranean.
Designed with dive bomber capability, the Ju 88 served in relatively small numbers in the invasion of Poland, the invasion of Norway, and the Battle of France. The Ju-88 was not well suited to the strategic bombing role into which it was forced during the Battle of Britain, especially in its early variants. It lacked the armament to sufficiently defend itself, and the payload to cause much destruction to British industry and infrastructure. The measure of an excellent bomber, however, goes well beyond its effectiveness at any particular mission. Ju 88s were devastating in Operation Barbarossa, tearing apart Soviet tank formations and destroying much of the Soviet Air Forces on the ground. Later variants were built as or converted into night fighters, attacking Royal Air Force bomber formations on the way to their targets.
In spite of heavy Allied bombing of the German aviation industry, Germany built over 15,000 Ju 88s between 1939 and 1945. They operated in several Axis air forces.
De Havilland Mosquito:
The de Havilland Mosquito was a remarkable little aircraft, capable of a wide variety of different missions. Not unlike the Ju 88, the Mosquito operated in bomber, fighter, night fighter, attack, and reconnaissance roles. The RAF was better positioned than the Luftwaffe to utilized the specific qualities of the Mosquito, and avoid forcing it into missions in could not perform.
Relatively lightly armed and constructed entirely of wood, the Mosquito was quite unlike the rest of the RAF bomber fleet. Barely escaping design committee, the Mosquito was regarded as easy to fly, and featured a pressurized cockpit with a high service ceiling. Most of all, however, the Mosquito was fast. With advanced Merlin engines, a Mosquito could outpace the German Bf109 and most other Axis fighters.
Although the bomb load of the Mosquito was limited, its great speed, combined with sophisticated instrumentation, allowed it to deliver ordnance with more precision than most other bombers. During the war, the RAF used Mosquitoes for various precision attacks against high value targets, including German government installations and V weapon launching sites. As pathfinders, Mosquitoes flew point on bomber formations, leading night time bombing raids that might otherwise have missed their targets. Mosquitos also served in a diversionary role, distracting German night fighters from the streams of Halifaxes and Lancasters striking urban areas.
De Havilland produced over 7000 Mosquitoes for the RAF and other allied air forces. Examples persisted in post-war service with countries as varied as Israel, the Republic of China, Yugoslavia, and the Dominican Republic
The workhorse of the RAF in World War II, the Lancaster carried out the greater part of the British portion of the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Led by Arthur Harris, Bomber Command believed that area bombing raids, targeted against German civilians, conducted at night, would destroy German morale and economic capacity and bring the war to a close. Accordingly, the Lancaster was less heavily armed than its American contemporaries, as it depended less on self-defense in order to carry out its mission.
The first Lancasters entered service in 1942. The Lancaster could carry a much heavier bomb load than the B-17 or the B-24, while operating at similar speeds and at a slightly longer range. The Lancaster also enjoyed a payload advantage over the Handley Page Halifax. From 1942 until 1945, the Lancaster would anchor the British half of the CBO, eventually resulting in the destruction of most of urban Germany and the death of several hundred thousand German civilians.
There are reasons to be skeptical of the inclusion of the Lancaster. The Combined Bomber Offensive was a strategic dead-end, serving up expensive four-engine bombers as a feast for smaller, cheaper German fighters. Battles were fought under conditions deeply advantageous to the Germans, as damaged German planes could land, and shot down German pilots rescued and returned to service. Overall, the enormous Western investment in strategic bombing was probably one of the greatest grand strategic miscalculations of the Second World War. Nevertheless, this list needs a bomber from the most identifiable bomber offensive in history, and the Lancaster was the best of the bunch.
Over 7000 Lancasters were built, with the last retiring in the early 1960s after Canadian service as recon and maritime patrol aircraft.
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress:
The disastrous experience of B-29 Superfortresses over North Korea in 1950 demonstrated that the United States would require a new strategic bomber, and soon. Unfortunately, the first two generations of bombers chosen by the USAF were almost uniformly duds; the hopeless B-36, the short-legged B-47, the dangerous-to-its-own-pilots B-58, and the obsolete-before-it-flew XB-70. The vast bulk of these bombers quickly went from wastes of taxpayer money to wastes of space at the Boneyard. None of the over 2500 early Cold War bombers ever dropped a bomb in anger.
The exception was the B-52.The BUFF was originally intended for high altitude penetration bombing into the Soviet Union. It replaced the B-36 and the B-47, the former too slow and vulnerable to continue in the nuclear strike mission, and the latter too short-legged to reach the USSR from U.S. bases. Slated for replacement by the B-58 and the B-70, the B-52 survived because it was versatile enough to shift to low altitude penetration after the increasing sophistication of Soviet SAMs made the high altitude mission suicidal.
And this versatility has been the real story of the B-52. The BUFF was first committed to conventional strike missions in service of Operation Arc Light during the Vietnam War. In Operation Linebacker II, the vulnerability of the B-52 to air defenses was made manifest when nine Stratofortresses were lost in the first days of the campaign. But the B-52 persisted. In the Gulf War, B-52s carried out saturation bombing campaigns against the forward positions of the Iraqi Army, softening and demoralizing the Iraqis for the eventual ground campaign. In the War on Terror, the B-52 has acted in a close air support role, delivering precision-guided ordnance against small concentrations of Iraqi and Taliban insurgents.
Most recently, the B-52 showed its diplomatic chops when two BUFFs were dispatched to violate China’s newly declared Air Defense Zone. The BUFF was perfect for this mission; the Chinese could not pretend not to notice two enormous bombers travelling at slow speed through the ADIZ.
742 B-52s were delivered between 1954 and 1963. Seventy-eight remain in service, having undergone multiple upgrades over the decades that promise to extend their lives into the 2030s, or potentially beyond. In a family of short-lived airframes, the B-52 has demonstrated remarkable endurance and longevity.
Over the last century, nations have invested tremendous resources in bomber aircraft. More often than not, this investment has failed to bear strategic fruit. The very best aircraft have been those that could not only conduct their primary mission effectively, but that were also sufficiently flexible to perform other tasks that might be asked of them. Current air forces have, with some exceptions, effectively done away with the distinctions between fighters and bombers, instead relying on multi-role fighter-bombers for both missions. The last big, manned bomber may be the American LRS-B, assuming that project ever gets off the ground.
Grumman A-6 Intruder, MQ-1 Predator, Caproni Ca.3, Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear,” Avro Vulcan, Tupolev Tu-22M “Backfire.”
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
What are the five greatest fighter aircraft of all time?
Like the same question asked of tanks, cars, or rock and roll guitarists, the answer invariably depends on parameters. For example, there are few sets of consistent parameters that would include both the T-34 and the King Tiger among the greatest of all tanks. I know which one I’d like to be driving in a fight, but I also appreciate that this isn’t the most appropriate way to approach the question. Similarly, while I’d love to drive a Porsche 959 to work every morning, I’d be hesitant to list it ahead of the Toyota Corolla on a “best of” compilation.
Nations buy fighter aircraft to resolve national strategic problems, and the aircraft should accordingly be evaluated on their ability to solve or ameliorate these problems. Thus, the motivating question is this: how well did this aircraft help solve the strategic problems of the nations that built or bought it? This question leads to the following points of evaluation:
Fighting characteristics: How did this plane stack up against the competition, including not just other fighters but also bombers and ground installations?
Reliability: Could people count on this aircraft to fight when it needed to, or did it spend more time under repair than in the air?
Cost: What did the organization and the nation have to pay in terms of blood and treasure to make this aircraft fly?
These are the parameters; here are my answers:
In the early era of military aviation, technological innovation moved at such speed that state of the art aircraft became obsolete deathtraps within a year. Engineers in France, Britain, Germany and Italy worked constantly to outpace their competitors, producing new aircraft every year to throw into the fight. The development of operational tactics trailed technology, although the input of the best flyers played an important role in how designers put new aircraft together.
In this context, picking a dominant fighter from the era is difficult. Nevertheless, the Spad S.XIII stands out in terms of its fighting characteristics and ease of production. Based in significant part on the advice of French aviators such as Georges Guynemer, the XIII lacked the maneuverability of some of its contemporaries, but could outpace most of them and performed very well in either a climb or a dive. It was simple enough to produce that nearly 8,500 such aircraft eventually entered service. Significant early reliability problems were worked out by the end of the war, and in any case were overwhelmed by the XIII’s fighting ability.
The S.XIII filled out not only French fighter squadrons, but also the air services of Allied countries. American ace Eddie Rickenbacker scored twenty of his kills flying an XIII, many over the most advanced German fighters of the day, including the Fokker D.VII.
The Spad XIII helped the Allies hold the line during the Ludendorff Offensive, and controlled the skies above France during the counter-offensive. After the war, it remained in service in France, the United States, and a dozen other countries for several years. In an important sense, the Spad XIII set the post-war standard for what a pursuit aircraft needed to do.
Of course, it is not only air forces that fly fighter aircraft. The F6F Hellcat can’t compare with the Spitfire, the P-51, or the Bf 109 on many basic flight characteristics, although its ability to climb was first-rate. What the F6F could do, however, was reliably fly from aircraft carriers, and it rode point on the great, decisive U.S. Navy carrier offensive of World War II. Entering the war in September 1943, it won 75% of USN aerial victories in the Pacific. USN ace David McCampbell shot down nine Japanese aircraft in one day flying a Hellcat .The F6F was heavily armed, and could take considerably more battle damage than its contemporaries. Overall, the F6F claimed nearly 5,200 kills at a loss of 270 aircraft in aerial combat, including a 13:1 ratio against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
The USN carrier offensive of the latter part of World War II is probably the greatest single example of the use of decisive airpower in world history. Hellcats and their kin (the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber and the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber) destroyed the fighting power of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), cracked open Japan’s island empire, and exposed the Japanese homeland to devastating air attack and the threat of invasion.
In 1943, the United States needed a fighter robust enough to endure a campaign fought distant from most bases, yet fast and agile enough to defeat the best that the IJN could offer. Tough and reliable as a brick, the Hellcat fit that role. Put simply, the Honda Accord is, in its own way, a great car; the Honda Accords of the fighter world also deserve their day.
The Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow, in English) failed to win the war for Germany, and couldn’t stop the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Had German military authorities made the right decisions, however, it might at least have accomplished the second.
Known as the world’s first operational jet fighter, full-scale production of the Me 262 was delayed by resistance within the German government and the Luftwaffe to devoting resources to an experimental aircraft without a clear role. Early efforts to turn it into a fighter-bomber fell flat. As the need for a superlative interceptor become apparent, however, the Me 262 found its place. The Swallow proved devastating against American bomber formations, and could outrun American pursuit aircraft.
The Me 262 was hardly a perfect fighter: it lacked the maneuverability of the best American interceptors, and both American and British pilots developed tactics for managing the Swallow. Although production suffered from some early problems with engines, by the later stages of the conflict, manufacturing was sufficiently easy that the plane could be mass-produced in dispersed, underground facilities.
But had it come on line a bit earlier, the Me 262 might have torn the heart out of the CBO. The CBO in 1943 was a touch and go affair; dramatically higher bomber losses in 1943 could well have led Churchill and Roosevelt to scale back the production of four engine bombers in favor of additional tactical aircraft. Without the advantage of long-range escorts, American bombers would have proven easy prey for the German jet. Moreover, the Me 262 would have been far more effective without the constant worry of P-47s and P-51s strafing its airfields and tracking its landings.
Nazi Germany needed a game changer, a plane capable of making the price too high for the Allies to keep up the CBO. The Me 262 came onto the scene too late to solve that problem, but it’s hard to imagine any aircraft that could have come closer. Ironically, this might have accelerated Allied victory, as the Combined Bomber Offensive resulted in not only the destruction of urban Germany, but in the waste of substantial Allied resources. Win-win.
An odd choice for this list? The MiG-21 is known largely as fodder for the other great fighters of the Cold War, and for having an abysmal kill ratio. The Fishbed (in NATO terminology) has served as a convenient victim in Vietnam and in a variety of Middle Eastern wars, some of which it fought on both sides.
But… the MiG-21 is cheap, fast, maneuverable, has low maintenance requirements. It’s relatively easy to learn to fly, although not necessarily easy to learn how to fly well. Air forces continued to buy the MiG-21 for a long time. Counting the Chengdu J-7 variant, perhaps 13,000 MiG-21s have entered service around the world. In some sense, the Fishbed is the AK-47 (or the T-34, if you prefer) of the fighter world. Fifty countries have flown the MiG-21, and it has flown for fifty-five years. It continues to fly as a key part of twenty-six different air forces, including the Indian Air Force, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, and the Romanian Air Force. Would anyone be surprised if the Fishbed and its variants are still flying in 2034?
The MiG-21 won plaudits from American aggressor pilots at Red Flag, who celebrated its speed and maneuverability, and played (through the contribution of North Vietnamese aces such as Nguyễn Văn Cốc ) an important role in redefining the requirements of air superiority in the United States. When flown well, it remains a dangerous foe.
Most of life is about just showing up, and since 1960 no fighter has shown up as consistently, and in as many places, as has the MiG-21. For countries needing a cheap option for claiming control of their national airspace, the MiG-21 has long solved problems, and will likely continue to serve in this role.
What to say about the F-15 Eagle? When it came into service in 1976, it was immediately recognized as the best fighter in the world. Today, it is arguably still the best all-around, cost-adjusted fighter, even if the Su-27 and F-22 have surpassed it in some ways. If one fighter in American history could take the name of the national symbol of the United States, how could it be anything other than the F-15?
The Eagle symbolizes the era of American hegemony, from the Vietnam hangover to the post-Cold War period of dominance. Designed in light of the lessons of Vietnam, at a time where tactical aviation was taking control of the US Air Force, the F-15 outperformed existing fighters and set a new standard for a modern air superiority aircraft. Despite repeated tests in combat, no F-15 has ever been lost to an aerial foe. The production line for the F-15 will run until at least 2019, and longer if Boeing can manage to sell anyone on the Silent Eagle.
In the wake of Vietnam, the United States needed an air superiority platform that could consistently defeat the best that the Soviet Union had to offer. The F-15 (eventually complemented by the F-16) provided this platform, and then some. After the end of the Cold War, the United States needed an airframe versatile enough to carry out the air superiority mission while also becoming an effective strike aircraft. Again, the F-15 solved the problem.
And it’s a plane that can land with one wing. Hard to beat that.
A Contest Based on Parameters:
Again, this exercise depends entirely on decisions about the parameters. A different set of criteria of effectiveness would generate an entirely different list (although the F-15 would probably still be here; it’s invulnerable). Nevertheless, the basic elements of the argument are sound: weapons should be evaluated in terms of how they help achieve national objectives.
Honorable mentions include the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre, the Fokker D.VII, the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the Supermarine Spitfire, the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, the McDonnell Douglas EA-18 Growler, the English Electric Lightning, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker,” and the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Robert Farley , a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This first appeared several years ago.