Alaska: The Navy Had Battlecruisers (Sadly They Failed)

The famous WWII-era Alaska-Class Battlecruisers were developed as far back as the 1930s to counter large German ships emerging during the lead-up to WWII. Of a planned class of six ships, only three were actually built and two were commissioned into service during WWII. 

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Floating the Alaska-Class

The two WWII Alaska-class ships, the USS Alaska and USS Guam, performed critical duties during the war in the Pacific. The USS Alaska and USS Guam were both used to screen and protect aircraft carriers in the Pacific and provided “shore bombardment” at Okinawa.

A third Alaska-class cruiser called the USS Hawaii was built but never commissioned.

The ships were designed and built as major WWII-era maritime warfare platforms with Mk 8 guns mounted in three-gun turrets, according to Such shore-bombardment weapons were of critical importance during the WWII era.

It was prior to the advent of precision-fired weaponry able to track and pinpoint targets from greater stand-off ranges. The Alaska-class Battlcruisers proved critical in supporting amphibious assaults by blanketing attacked area defenses with suppressive fire as forces moved onto the land and delivered weapons and equipment. 

The Time of Bombardment

These large bombardment warships might arguably be much more vulnerable today as they bombarded key target areas prior to the advent of longer-range, precision-guided anti-ship missiles. While the Alaska-class cruisers certainly faced threats and incoming attacks from enemy ground or sea weapons, ultra-long-range, precise anti-ship missiles did not yet exist, so the battlecruiser could fire guns and bombard at closer-in ranges with less risk.  

The principal technological breakthroughs that impacted the existence and mission scope of the Alaska-class battlecruisers likely resolve around range and precision.

Unguided bombardments proved effective as area weapons able to support maneuvering amphibious attacking forces, yet advanced enemy defenses such as ground-fired anti-ship missiles improved in range and guidance capacity. This made large bombarding battlecruisers more vulnerable and less able to perform their intended missions.

Alaska-Class Battlecruiser. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Aerial view of warships at the base piers of Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia (USA), circa August 1944. Among them are: the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), the largest ship; the battlecruiser USS Alaska (CB-1), on the other side of the pier; the escort carrier USS Croatan (CVE-25), and two destroyers, a Fletcher-class destroyer at the pier and a Clemson/Wilkes-class-destroyer moored outboard.

Alaska-Class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Alaska-Class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Alaska-Class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The U.S. Navy large cruiser USS Guam (CB-2) underway off Trinidad on 13 November 1944 during shakedown training.

Long-range, precision-guided attack weapons also enabled warships to attack from much safer stand-off distances, making closer-in bombardments less necessary to a certain extent. 

Should a modern warship be able to blanket an area with large numbers of precision-guided cruise missiles able to destroy land defenses and targets at sea from hundreds of miles away, there would be less need for closer-in suppressive fire. 

Therefore, while critical for their time as indispensable to amphibious attack and maritime warfare in the Pacific, it would make sense if the rapid arrival of improved enemy weapons rendered the Alaska-class ships less impactful.

This might help explain why only three were built, and two served in the war when the original vision was to build a class of six ships. 

Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University

Original News Source – 1945