Surface Forces: Bye Bye Battleships

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January 3, 2006: The U.S. Navy is asking Congress for permission to remove the battleships Iowa and Wisconsin from the Naval Register of Vessels, citing the grand total of $1.4 million annual maintenance costs for both vessels. The two ships are presently kept in reserve as part of a 1996 Congressional mandate (Section 1011 of Public Law 104-106), which was in response to the 1995 decision to remove all four remaining battleships from the Naval Register of Vessels.

There has been a push by a number of retired Marine officers and other former officials (including former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, former Marine Commandants Paul X. Kelley and James Jones, and General Tommy Franks, commander of CENTCOM during the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq) to reactivate the battleships. Total cost for reactivation as is has been placed at $430 million, with 14 months needed to complete the work. A 10-month modernization program costing a total of $500 million for both ships is also proposed. This would permit the ships to be ready in two years.

The Navy, however, wants to use the new DD(X) to provide naval gunfire for supporting troops ashore. But the first, or 24, DD(X) will not enter service until 2013. These vessels, however, seem to be slated to operate with carriers, rather than provide fire support, primarily due to their price tag, which will be $2.5 billion per ship. This price for one of the later DD(X) vessels (early versions are projected to run as high as $5 billion per ship) is just a hair under three times the cost estimate of modernizing the Iowa and Wisconsin.

There also is the matter of JDAM, GPS guided smart bombs dropped from carrier and land-based aircraft. These have provided all-weather precision-attack capability in close support of ground troops, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The troops prefer these to artillery, because they are more flexible and accurate. Fire support from ships is limited by the availability of deep water, which can be a problem in places like Afghanistan and most of Iraq.

Despite this, some people still favor the battleships due to their nine 16-inch guns, which can hurl 2700 pound armor-piercing shells up to 44 kilometers away. In 1991, the Missouri and Wisconsin provided fire support for Marine forces in Kuwait (and in one instance, forces from Saddam Hussein's regime surrendered to the unmanned aerial vehicle being used for gunfire spotting). Proponents also point to their ability to rapidly follow up when compared to aircraft (which have to fly back to a carrier to refuel and rearm, then fly back - which takes a lot longer). These ships are also heavily armored, and able to resist all but the largest torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. They also can carry 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles in armored box launchers and sixteen Harpoon (or SLAM) missiles. Proposed modernization programs replace the armored box launchers with vertical-launch systems that will at least quadruple the number of Tomahawks carried (depending on the size of VLS used, the number of Tomahawks carried could be octupled) and double the number of Harpoons or SLAMs carried. Enhanced rounds for the 16-inch guns capable of reaching targets 185 kilometers away are also part of the upgrade proposal. However, since 1991, the JDAM has gone into service, and that has changed the situation considerably.

That said, reactivating battleships comes at a cost that the Navy considers too high. Even with reduced crews of 1,100, the costs will be enormous. Each crewman costs the navy an average of $90,000 per year - this is a cost of $99 million per year per battleship. The battleships also require a different type of fuel than the more modern naval vessels. This means that they require an additional logistical train. Many of the spare parts also have to be custom-made, which is also expensive, since the shipbuilding industry has changed over the past sixty years.

The debate over the Iowa-class battleships will continue to rage. The marines want proven fire support (which the battleships are), and feel that the Navy is treating naval gunfire support with less respect than the air force treats close-air support. The navy does not wish to rely on ships that will soon be old enough to collect Social Security. This is a debate that will rage for a long period of time, even when the first DD(X) enters service. - Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

Author's note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author favors the modernization and reactivation of the Iowa and Wisconsin, and opposes efforts to strike them until suitable replacements have entered service.

 


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