"What the Marine Corps Really Needs..."

By William L Stearman

A baseless anti-battleship prejudice is mainly responsible for the present dismal NSFS deficiency. The Navy claims that battleships are too costly to man and operate, yet a battleship requires one-fourth the personnel of a carrier and her air wing; costs less than one-sixth as much to operate and maintain; and requires half or fewer costly escorts. (Reactivating a battleship costs about one-tenth the full cost of a new destroyer.) When it comes to laying down accurate, massive, all-weather, around-the-clock fire support in high threat littoral areas, the battleship is clearly superior to the carrier. The awesome, extensively armored and compartmented battleship, unlike the infinitely more vulnerable carrier, can always risk coming close to shore; thus it is also far more effective in making a psychological impact in high-threat situations which is essential to the Navy's principal peacetime "forward presence" role.

During Operation Desert Storm, of the approximately 80 naval combatants normally on station, only the two battleships could provide our ground forces with fire support. They are mothballed now, and our vulnerable active combatants cannot risk being brought in close enough to use their 13-mile range, five-inch guns on land targets; hence the ERGM, which will fire a round with a 19-pound payload of submunitions (but no high explosives) a hoped-for 73 miles. The ships firing them are expected to stand about 30 miles off shore, at least. The Navy also has begun developing a 155-mm (6.1 inch) long range gun system, which also would lack the capability to lay down the high-explosive volume fire General Van Riper calls for.

The battleships' 16-inch guns, however, can in one hour lay down a volume of fire equivalent of that delivered by several carrier air wings-or by 25 B-2 sorties-at ranges from 23 to 30 miles (depending on the round). In addition, only battleships can risk firing from close to shore, which translates into very fast response time. (General Van Riper wants 2 1/2 minutes; he'll get that only from a battleship.)

The battleship's 16-inch guns could fire long-range rounds, including a guided 11-inch sabot round with a potential range of 115 miles and a 200-pound submunition payload, as well as high explosive or penetrating payloads (unlike the ERGM). They also can carry a large number of 1,000-mile plus Tomahawks and other missiles. Eight video-linked unmanned aerial vehicles per ship provide target acquisition, spotting, fire adjustment, and reconnaissance.

Given the Marine Corps' obvious need for battleships, why didn't the general simply call for their reactivation? After all, the Commandant himself (General Charles Krulak) described battleships as "a great weapon system" in a 12 December 1996 interview. I can only guess that the Marine Corps refuses to request reactivation-which gives Congress little incentive to support it-simply because the Navy doesn't want battleships and is holding hostage the Marines' purse strings at a time the Corps wants such big ticket items as the MV-22 and the advanced amphibious assault vehicle.

The Marines' dilemma was poignantly expressed in a 25 August 1995 letter Headquarters Marine Corps sent to me: "Most Marines are great fans of the battleship's capabilities. However, as you know the decision has been made regarding their future. Being good Marines we salute, say `aye-aye,' and try to do the best we can without them. " (Emphasis added.)

Surely the Corps' leaders, who are good and conscientious officers, know that today's lack of effective surface fire support could needlessly endanger Marines' lives and compromise our capabilities in future littoral conflicts. Again, I can only surmise that they see no such conflicts on the horizon.


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Pearl Harbor - 75th, A Historical Symposium

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