The Battle Fleet that Never Was: The USS Washington, the South Dakota Class and the Lexington Class Battle Cruisers

Artist depiction of the Lexington as Battle Cruiser

Note: This is the first of a series of articles on what might have happened if the Washington Naval Treaty had not been signed. This article is a look at the American fleet that never was, the following articles will be in the alternative history genre looking at a war breaking out in the Pacific in 1937.

Historians almost always muse on what might have been.  One of the most significant events of the years following the First World War was the Washington Naval Conference and Treaty. The treaty called by the President Harding and conducted under the auspices of the League of Nations was the first international disarmament conference and attended by none nations having interests in the Pacific. The major players in the conference from the naval power perspective were the British, Americans, Japanese, French and Italians.  Each nation had an agenda for the conference, for the United States it was to break the Anglo-Japanese naval accord and to limit the Japanese naval build up.  The British, exhausted and financially reeling from the effects of the First World War had a number of goals.  Though they had the largest navy and the most Dreadnaught type battleships and battle cruisers of any Navy many of its ships were obsolete or worn out from wartime service.  They had little capital to put into new ship construction, especially considering the vast resources of the United States which was already well into a vast naval buildup including ships that would be among the largest and most heavily armed in the world.  It was in the interest of Britain to limit the both the number, tonnage and armament of these ships.

Artist impression of South Dakota Class

The treaty which was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each.  Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest. For the US this had a dramatic effect on its planned fleet, which if built would have become the dominant Navy of the 1920s and 1930s.  It is fascinating to think what might have happened if the treaty had not been signed and what the battle fleets of the various nations would have looked like in 1941 had war not come sooner.

Plans for South Dakota Class

The American Navy went to war in 1941 with 18 battleships, the most modern of which were the new North Carolina and Washington and the rest averaging over 20 years old in 1941. The most modern of these ships were the Colorado class composed of the Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia each mounting eight 16”/50 guns.  The fourth ship of the class the Washington was sunk as a gunnery target when 75% complete under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty.

The incomplete USS Washington sinking

However it was a battle force that could have been much larger and far more capable, a force that may not been regulated to convoy escort duties and shore bombardment but instead may have taken on the Imperial Navy on the high seas in battleship combat not seen since Jutland.  Yet this was not to be, the great fleet of super-battleships was never built and only two hulls completed the Lexington and Saratoga which instead of being completed as battle cruisers were completed as aircraft carriers.

Artist impression of South Dakota Class

The Americans had set out to build the largest, most modern and powerful battleships and battle cruisers afloat.  The Navy had already produced the Colorado class super-dreadnaughts which were equal to or superior to any battleships of their era.  The Navy planned for a class of six battle cruisers which would be superior to any similar ship afloat, the Lexington class and a class of six battleships, the South Dakota class mounting twelve 16”/50 guns in triple turrets.

Artist impression of South Dakota Class as they might have appeared in 1938

The two classes were leviathans and to counter them the British made plans for a four ship 48,000 ton class of battleships, the N3 project mounting nine 18” guns and a class of battle cruisers mounting nine 16” guns.  The ships of both classes were designed with their main battery mounted forward in order to save weight on armor.  Both classes were canceled with the signing of the treaty and none were laid down.  It is suggested by some that the G3 battle cruiser design was a ploy to get the United States to agree to the cancellation of its capital ship projects. The guns planned for the G3 class were mounted on the Nelson class battleships which complied with treaty limits.  Although powerful ships they suffered from engineering problems which often reduced their speed from what was designed.  Along with the HMS Hood, the sole ship completed of the four ship Admiral class the Nelson and Rodney were the most modern battleships in the Royal Navy until the King George V class entered service in 1941.  The Japanese planned for eight battleships and eight battle cruisers centered on the two existing Nagato class battleships and 4 Kongo class battle cruisers to be joined by the two ship 40,000 ton Tosa class battleships, the Tosa and the Kaga, of which Kaga was completed as an aircraft carrier. They were to be joined by the 4 improved Tosa class or Kii class fast battleships of 42,000 which were ordered but never laid down.  These were to be joined by the four ship Amagi class battle cruiser class.  Amagi was destroyed during the Tokyo earthquake of 1922 and scrapped and Akagi completed as an aircraft carrier.  All of the planned Japanese ships were to mount ten 16” guns in five twin turrets.

Lexington Class final design drawing

The American ships were to be powerful and based on main battery, protection and speed they would have acquitted themselves well had they been built.  The Japanese ships would have had a speed advantage over the South Dakota’s but this would have been offset by the gun power and protection of the latter.  The American Lexington class would have been faster than any of their competitors.

South Dakota Class Design Specifications
Displacement: 43,200 tons normal
Dimensions: 684 x 106 x 33 feet/208.5 x 32.3 x 10.1 meters
Propulsion: Turbo-electric, 12 285 boilers, 4 shafts, 50,000 shp, 23 knots
Crew: 1191
Armor: 8-13.5 inch belt, 3.5 inch deck, 4.5-13.5 inch barbettes, 5-18 inch turrets, 8-16 inch CT
Aviation: none
Armament: 4 triple 16″/50cal, 16 6″/53cal, 8 3″/50cal AA, 2 21 inch torpedo tubes (submerged)

The six ships in the Class, South Dakota, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, Iowa and Massachusetts were all scrapped in accordance with the treaty when partially complete, the North Carolina being in the most advanced stage of construction, 37.8% when construction was halted.

Lexington class Battle Cruiser Design Specifications

Displacement 43,500 Tons, Dimensions, 874′ (oa) x 105′ 5″ x 31′ (max).
Armament 8 x 16″/50 16 x 6″/53 4 x 3″8 x 21″ torpedo tubes
Machinery, 180,000 SHP; G.E. Geared Turbines with Electric Drive, 4 screws
Speed, 35 Knots, Crew 1500

The ships with the exception of the Lexington and Saratoga were scrapped incomplete.  All were to be named after famous warships or battles, and the Constellation, Constitution, Ranger and the United States were to be named after some of the most illustrious ships ever to serve in the US Navy.

If all of the ships, including the Washington of the Colorado class been completed the US Navy would have had eight battleships and six battle cruisers mounting 16 inch guns to compliment the nine battleships of the Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and California classes which all mounted 14 inch batteries.  The fleet would have been superior to either the Royal Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy even with the ships planned by those navies.  Economically the United States was the only nation in the world capable of sustaining a naval arms race of this magnitude, the British economy and political will would have been unable to sustain it and the limited industrial capacity and dependence on the United States for raw materials and machine tools needed to construct their ships would have limited their ability to produce such a fleet. Without the conversion of the Lexington, Saratoga and their Japanese counterparts the Akagi and Kaga into aircraft carriers the development of the carrier would likely have gone slower and that type of ship may not have risen to the prominence that they gained during the Second World War.


Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships

8 responses to “The Battle Fleet that Never Was: The USS Washington, the South Dakota Class and the Lexington Class Battle Cruisers

  1. As much as I love the Colorado class and their unbuilt sisters, I disagree with the conclusion of this article. Aircraft carriers were going to rise to prominence whether or not the Washington Naval Treaty were signed. There would have been more battleships to sink with airplanes, that’s what would have happened. There would also though have been a better chance of a great battleship battle on the high seas though. Probably the closest we came to that in this timeline was the Bismarck episode of 1941 and the Battle of Surigao Strait in 1944.

    • padresteve


      Yes, I agree that the Aircraft Carrier would have come along but not as fast and that none of the major players would have made the investment in the carriers that they did as early as they did. With that in mind there would have been fewer carriers, fewer experienced Naval Aviators and carrier forces that would have been less skilled with fewer technical advances or modern aircraft. Those were the factors that made the difference in the first months of the Pacific war and if I am correct the carriers would have been less of a factor, maybe not even the decisive factor in the war, especially if the war had come around 1935 to 1939. I expect that if the treaties had allowed the construction of the super-battleships that all the major naval powers, especially the US Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy would not have made the investment in their carrier forces that made them such lethal weapons that ended the dominance of the battleship.

      Thanks for your comments, they are always welcome, blessings and peace,

      Padre Steve+

  2. Yes, if the nations had built all the battleships they planned they wouldn’t have had any money for aircraft carriers or anything else for that matter. That might have made the Great Depression worse, or perhaps all those jobs building the ships would have boosted the economy. (It wouldn’t have helped regulate the greed that was the root cause though).

    A war in the mid-1930s with such fleets in existence would have even more of a naval show than the real WW2, which couldn’t have been won without naval power or foot soldiers anyway regardless of how mighty the airplane had become. Also the biplanes of that the early 1930s were weak and puny by comparison to 1940s airplanes (although much stronger than those of WW1). They would have had difficulty sinking those large ships, although as Billy Mitchell showed in the early 1920s it wouldn’t have been impossible as the battleship admirals claimed.

    An aside: I was born in 1960 and started reading about the World Wars at an early age. IIRC most references and books back then called it World War II (Roman numerals). Nowadays it seems Arabic numerals are favored more, and the hyphens are gone too (WW2 instead of WW-II). Any opinions on this? For alphabetizing automatically the newer convention is better, also shorter for shorter filenames in computers and such (and saves ink, go green!)

  3. A few typos in this last message, and in the first message I had put two “thoughs” in one sentence. I used two many of these thoughs. Hey, if you are interested in the technology and events of early WW-II, you might enjoy the essay I put as my Website link in these posts. I read Seversky’s 1942 book “Victory Through Air Power” for the first time when I was a small boy. After four decades of studying the military history of those times I finally wrote something about it.

  4. Adam McGregor

    As learned as the lead essay was; and as astute the observations about economic and political issues made, I have to throw a few sour technological details into the mix to correct some faulty assumptions on the evidence given to support some dubious conclusions about the airplane, the battleship, and the mode of WW II naval war in general.

    One; the Great Depression crippled the research and development arm of the United States Navy. The resources that were desperately thrown into fire control systems, over fourteen different types of experimental electric and monoxidal propellant torpedoes and missiles of all types.between 1940 and 1944 could and would have been spread out through the 1930s, treaty or no treaty. The USN had a vested program and interest in free swimmer and air dropped guided and steered weapons of all conceivable radio controlled types as early as 1935. The battleship and its surface brethren (at least the enemy types, would not have survived such intensive USN efforts to destroy them from above and below the waterline as in the end 1944-1945 operations demonstrated. HIJMS Shinano and the little escort ship Aguni, one sunk by torpedoes, and the other hit by a radar guided bomb called the Bat were not accidents.

    Two: a careful review, of the flawed designs that were the original South Dakota Class and the even worse original Lexington Class, show that both ships protection schemes left them suicidally vulnerable to plunging fire. Whether Japanese fourteen inch gun or Val dive bomber, would not have mattered if those ships were built as designed. Crew-killers they were. The Lexington rebuilt as an aircraft carrier was a much tougher ship with a much better float bubble (compartmentalization accounts for much of the toughness of American ships designed between 1922 and 1957). So tough was the reworked Lexington Class (lost due to a huge damage control error of the type that cost the Japanese, the Taiho;) that the Saratoga survived a similar amount of damage to finally end her days to be tested within a few hundred feet of a Nagasaki type atomic bomb… TWICE.

    Finally, It should be noted, that the battleship once built, could not be adapted or improved much over time. That was certainly true of the Iowa Class that for all their cruise missile refits and refurbishments were essentially quite helpless against most enemy shore defenses after 1944, requiring the most robust screens of radar equipped air defense bodyguard ships and air cover to keep them safe from Kamikazis whether manned or robotic. An aircraft carrier, provided she was large enough, would be able to take several successive generations of improved warplanes and therefore increase her deadliness over her lifetime of use. The USS Midway started her life, just after WW 2 operating Hellcats. She ended her life in battle against the Iraqis using Hornets. Remarkably DEADLY ship. Remarkably DEADLY lesson. Moffett was right and Nulton was wrong. Thank goodness Carl Vinson listened to Moffett!

    • Big Steve

      I find your comment about the Iowa class being ill suited for upgrades and being “helpless against shore defenses after 1944” to be laughable. These ships were among the AA protectors of the vulnerable carriers throughout world war 2 and at the end of that war had far and away the best anti-aircraft defenses of any ship class afloat. They operated with impunity off the coast of Korea in the 50’s and Vietnam in the 60’s, (both times ships were hit by shore artillery and barely scratched) and the one known instance of missiles being fired at an iowa class battleship (Gulf war, 2 or more silkworm missiles) the battleship had one or two destroyer escorts, not some kind of flotilla of escorts. Also, as for their “vulnerability”, in 1981 the navy did a study on the Iowa class and determined that it would take no less than 8 exocet anti-ship missile strikes to even affect an Iowa class ship’s maneuverability or speed and that was provided that each missile struck the unarmored bow, as the missile was not believed to be capable of defeating the belt, turret, or conning tower armor. It was also determined that these ships were extremely resilient to under keel torpedo detonations and that it would likely take 4 near simultaneous Mk 48 torpedo strikes to one side of the ship to sink it (by overwhelming the counter flooding systems). Show me another ship afloat that is rated to take anything similar to that kind of punishment! The 1980’s upgrades gave them a computer and sensor suite 2nd only to the Aegis systems, 32 tomahawks, 16 harpoons, and 4x Phalanx CIWS, basically making their AA capability about 3x mk 29 8 cell sea sparrow launchers shy of the Nimitz class carriers. This was done with the weight savings of removing 4 of the 10 dual 5″/38 cal mounts (about 110 tons each including armored ammo storage rooms and ammunition load). What else could have been added in a trade with the other 600-660 tons worth of 5″ DP gun turrets? Sea Sparrow launchers? mk 75 OTO melara 76mm super rapid DP guns (aid in missile defense and provide defense vs small attack craft)? More cruise missiles or anti-ship missiles? maybe some ASW defense? Then you have to take into account the navy’s work with making 5″ and 6.1″ guns fire extreme long range precision guided shells….how much farther could they get the mk 7 16″/50cal guns to shoot? How would all the talk of “swarm attacks” by small gunboats and ultralight aircraft be going if we had a couple of these battlewagons around to laugh at that sort of threat?

      • padresteve

        Big Steve
        I tend to agree with you in regard to Adam’s comments. I wish that the Iowa’s as well as the Treaty South Dakota’s were still around and active. Compared to what we have today they are both deadly and survivable as well as very upgradable to meet emerging conditions.
        Thanks for your comments,
        Padre Steve+

  5. Adam

    Sorry, gentlemen, you are both incorrect. The Iowa had a large vulnerable fraction of its float bubble outside the armored raft. These ships were essentially battle-cruisers and not true battleships as you would see in something like the Montanas. The real weakness of the design is in the underwater protection ahead and behind the torpedo defense that only covered the amidship zones.

    As for defense against Kamikazi attack or its cruise missile attack equivalent?

    If that 500 pound bomb had gone off, you would be of a different opinion as to the robustness of the Iowas.


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