Washington Naval Treaty

The Washington Naval Treaty limited the naval armaments of its five signatories. It was signed by representatives of the United States of America, the British Empire, Japan, France, and Italy in Washington, DC, on February 6 1922. The US Senate advised ratification on March 29 1922; the President of the United States ratified it on June 9 1923; the ratifications were deposited with the Government of the United States on August 17, 1923, and were proclaimed on August 21 1923.



In the aftermath of World War I, the major nations embarked upon large programmes of new capital ships (battleships). The United States had declared an aim to produce a navy "second to none". In the face of recession and the fact that the largest navies were the British and Japanese, who had a mutual defence treaty, that ambition was seen to be unrealistic, even ruinous. The United States initiated a treaty to limit the largest ships in each of the signatory nations.


After specifying some exceptions for ships in current use and under construction, the treaty limited the total capital ship tonnage of each of the signatories: the United States Navy and the Royal Navy could not exceed 525,000 tons (533,000 t), the French Navy and the Italian Navy were limited to 175,000 tons (178,000 t), and the Japanese Navy to 315,000 tons (320,000 t). No single ship could exceed 35,000 tons (35,560 t), and no ship could carry a gun in excess of 16 inches (406 mm).

The tonnage was defined in the treaty to exclude fuel because Britain argued that their global activities demanded higher fuel loads than other nations and they should not be penalised.

Aircraft carriers were addressed specifically: the total tonnage for carriers of the United States and the British Empire was limited to 135,000 tons (137,000 t); for France and Italy 60,000 tons (61,000 t); and for Japan 81,000 tons (82,000 t). Only two carriers per nation could exceed 27,000 tons (27,400 t), and those two were limited to 33,000 tons (33,500 t) each. The number of large guns carried by an aircraft carrier was sharply limited—it was not legal to put a small aircraft on a battleship and call it an aircraft carrier.

As to fortifications and naval bases, the United States, the British Empire, and Japan agreed to maintain the status quo at the time of the signing. No new fortifications or naval bases could be established, and existing bases and defences could not be improved in the territories and possessions specified. In general, the specified areas allowed construction on the main coasts of the countries, but not on smaller island territories. For example, the United States could build on Hawaii and the Alaskan mainland, but not on the Aleutian Islands. The various navies of the British Empire — considered under the treaty as one entity — were treated similarly and the facilities of the Royal Australian Navy (which had to give up the battlecruiser HMAS Australia) and the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy could be built up by their respective governments, but not the base of Hong Kong. Japan could build on the home islands, but not Formosa.

On December 29 1934, the Japanese government gave notice that it intended to terminate the treaty. Its provisions remained in force until the end of 1936, and it was not renewed.


In Europe, the Treaty changed planned building programs for most of the signatories. Almost all of the forces built new designs in the new "heavy cruiser" class, but at the same time few new battleships were built. Instead, extensive conversions were made to existing battleships and battlecruisers, resulting in fleets in World War II that consisted primarily of ships laid-down before World War I. The United States built no new battleships until the keel of North Carolina was laid in October 1937 — a span of nearly 20 years.

A number of attempts were made to build new battleship designs within the Treaty limitations. The need to increase armor and firepower while keeping weight under the Washington limit resulted in experimental new designs like the British Nelson Class and the French Richelieu.

In general ship effectiveness is related to speed, armor and armament. Weight is related to ship length which permits higher speeds. Each nation used a different approach to circumvent the treaties. The US used high strength boilers for higher speeds in a smaller ship. Germany used high strength steels for better armor and lower weight. Britain designed ships that could have armor added after a war began, and in the case of HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson used waterfilled "fuel tanks" as armour. Italy simply lied about the tonnage of their ships. Japan withdrew from the treaty in 1936, and continued the building program that they had previously begun, to include placing 18.1 inch (460 mm) guns on battleship Yamato.

Few European forces operated at long ranges from land, and therefore there was little interest in aircraft carrier construction. The Germans, French and Italians did not bother with carriers until WWII was clearly looming, at which point all of them started construction in small numbers. The Royal Navy, tasked with long-range operations the world over, clearly needed carriers and so continued construction. Between 1920 (prior to the treaty) and the start of WWII the British built six new carriers of various one-off classes. The US had six carriers at the start of the war, not including the old CV-1, Langley, as she had been converted to a seaplane carrier in 1936 to allow for the completion of Wasp (CV-7). Japan converted incomplete battleship Kaga and battlecruiser Akagi to aircraft carriers to conform to Washington Naval Treaty. These conversions provided much needed experiences and helped to build future classes of aircraft carriers. Japan had ten carriers at the start of the war.

The effects of the Treaty on the United States could not have been more different. The Treaty, coupled with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, was a major cause of the United States Navy's conversion from a battleship fleet to a carrier-based force.

The United States was over the limits in capital ships when the treaty was ratified, and had to decommission or disarm several older vessels in order to comply. However, the only aircraft carrier in the US fleet before the treaty was signed was USS Langley (CV-1) (11,500 tons, 11,700 t), a converted collier. Not only did carriers have separate limits, but as an experimental vessel, Langley did not count against the tonnage restrictions. The US Navy thus had a free rein to build carriers.

In the 1920s the Department of the Navy had a low opinion of the concept of naval aviation despite (or perhaps because of) Billy Mitchell's 1921 success in using Army bombers to sink the captured German battleship Ostfriesland. However, to comply with the treaty, two newly constructed battlecruisers of the Lexington class, USS Lexington (CV-2) (33,000 tons, 33,500 t) and USS Saratoga (CV-3) (33,000 tons, 33,500 t), had to be disposed of. They were converted into carriers, although that choice was only slightly preferred over scrapping. However they were also equipped with eight 8-inch guns, as a hedge against the possibility that they would turn out to be failures as aircraft carriers.

In 1931, the United States was still well under the treaty's limit on carriers. USS Ranger (CV-4) (14,500 tons, 14,700 t) was the first US carrier designed as such — no other class of capital ship could be built — and the Navy began incorporating the lessons from those first four carriers into the design of two more. In 1933, Congress passed Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" package of legislation, which included nearly $40 million for the two new carriers: Yorktown (CV-5) (19,800 tons, 20,100 t) and Enterprise (CV-6) (19,800 tons, 20,100 t). Still bound by the 135,000 ton (137,000 t) limit, the keel of the final US pre-war Treaty carrier Wasp (CV-7) (14,700 tons, 14,900 t) was laid down on April 1, 1936. The US Carrier Fleet now totalled 135,000 tons (137,000 t) and there it remained until the treaty was terminated by Japan in 1936.

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