The attack on Pearl Harbor was the pinnacle point in transition for naval warfare around the globe. For centuries the concept of a heavily armed warship, unleashing torrents of fire upon its enemies had been the standard bearer for navies. The battleship and its forerunners served as the premier war machine on the waves. With the development of the Dreadnought battleship by the British Navy in the latter part of the 19th century, an arms race erupted between the global powers in the production of heavily armed battleships. While the use of the battleship was limited in the early 20th century, conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War did see extensive use of the warship and the practical strategies utilized by the Japanese navy helped them achieve victory over their Russian counterparts.
During World War I, the application of battleships on the warfront was somewhat limited. The one exception was the Battle of Jutland between the Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy. The Battle of Jutland proved inconclusive for both sides, and while the German navy attempted to draw the British into another duel, their failure to achieve an overwhelming victory led to the German’s keeping their battleship fleet in port for the remainder of the conflict. The introduction of airplanes and submarines to the conflict would have more influence over the future of naval strategy than the continued use of battleships. After the war, air war doctrine advocates, like Billy Mitchell, would go on to show the utility of airplanes in naval combat and press for the introduction of a new warship, the aircraft carrier.
When World War II started, the United States still had a sizeable battleship fleet. The US Navy had invested in aircraft carriers, with eight carriers in service at the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Luckily no aircraft carriers were present at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese struck. While there had long been a growing shift in strategic thought regarding the use of aircraft carriers, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy turned entirely towards an aircraft carrier model for its fleet. The US Navy commissioned ten battleships during World War II, with the transition towards aircraft carriers it commissioned 27 aircraft carriers and an additional 71 escort carriers.
Look for more information regarding the history of US aircraft carriers in the future World at War issue #45 with the article “CVEs – Workhorses of US Naval Aviation” and join the conversation on Facebook!