The U.S. Navy: The Battleships Are Back!

By Norman Polmar, Author, The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet

The Navy delayed reinstating two battleships until 30 December 1997, when the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations promulgated a memo to do so, signed by Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay Johnson on 21 January 1998, and by Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton on 12 February 1998.

Thus, two dreadnoughts—at that point the Wisconsin and the New Jersey (BB-62)—are back in the Navy.

The key question is: Why? Navy-Marine Corps planning calls for future amphibious assaults to be launched from over the horizon, as far as 50 miles offshore to perhaps 25 miles off the beach. The availability of the MV-22 Osprey, helicopters, and the air cushion landing craft (LCAC) permit these longer assault ranges. At the same time, there is an increased threat to ships closer inshore from mines and antiship missiles, the latter launched from shore cover.

An Iowa -class battleship's 16-inch guns have a maximum range of 27 miles. This makes the platform irrelevant unless it can be brought close inshore. But in view of the damage sustained by a U.S. helicopter carrier and Aegis cruiser from mines in the Gulf War, and the two cruise missiles fired against a battleship in that conflict, naval commanders should be reluctant to bring such high-value, high-visibility targets close in. Even steaming a few miles offshore the battleship's guns could be irrelevant, as current amphibious doctrine calls for using helicopters and MV-22s to land assault troops far inshore.

There are three alternatives to the outdated 16-inch guns:

  • The 5-inch/62-caliber gun will enter Navy service in 2001 on board the destroyer Winston Churchill (DDG-81). It will fire extended-range guided munition (ERGM) rounds out to 63 nautical miles, with the global positioning system providing greater accuracy.
  • The vertical gun for advanced ships (VGAS), a 155-mm/52caliber gun with a range of about 100 nautical miles, will enter service with the DD-21 destroyer about 2008. This gun will fire 200-pound rounds. VGAS rounds, with greater accuracy and a higher rate of fire than ERGMs, will be expensive, but the overall system costs when one considers ship crew size, rate of fire, magazines, and accuracy will be relatively low.
  • Missiles, both Army Tactical Missile System and Tomahawk variants, will provide still greater ranges and great flexibility in payloads. These can be carried by all cruisers and destroyers that will be in the fleet after about 2000.

Battleships reactivated in the 1980s carried 32 Tomahawk missiles, but a modified Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyer, while retaining all other weapons and systems, can carry 61 vertical-launch missiles, and with a smaller crew than that needed to operate a battleship.

The other problem is the cost of reactivation and operation. During the Reagan buildup, reactivating the four ships totaled about $1.66 billion; the future cost of bringing back two ships could be more than $1 billion in today's money—more than the cost of an Aegis destroyer (which carries 90 missiles).

A last minute congressional ploy could add another chunk to the cost of reactivation. Originally, the battleships Wisconsin and New Jersey were to be retained in mothballs. The Missouri (BB-63) was earmarked at an early stage to become a memorial-honoring her role as the site of Japan's formal surrender to the Allies on 2 September 1945—and the Iowa was not planned for retention because of damage from her 1989 turret explosion. Components needed to repair the three-gun 16-inch turret are available, but the cost of the repairs is estimated at about $8 million.

But the New Jersey congressional delegation has introduced legislation to force the Navy to retain the damaged Iowa as well as the Wisconsin as the two ships kept in reserve. The fiscal 1999 defense budget legislates the ship switch. The New Jersey delegation wants battleship New Jersey instead to be anchored off the Statue of Liberty as a museum/memorial. (The California congressional delegation, meanwhile, is making an effort to obtain any battleship for display.)

In addition, reactivation is expected to take more than a year for each ship, assuming shipyard facilities are available. The ships also would have to be provided with modern (compatible) radars, electronic countermeasures, communications, and other equipment, which may or may not be readily available.

Finding a crew could be even more difficult. There are no U.S. Navy personnel currently qualified in the 16-inch or 5-inch/38-caliber guns, the Mark 13 fire-control systems, the 600-pound steam plants, or many of the battleship's other systems. And each warship will require a crew of some 1,600. Additional crewmen in training, transit, and other assignments will push total manning for two battleships to about 3,500—enough to operate about ten Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers.

With the ships reactivated, up to six months of at-sea crew training would be needed for them to be ready for combat. Thus, the New Jersey and Wisconsin could take 18 months from the order being given until they would be available to the fleet.

A final factor in retaining the battleships for possible future use is the issue of 16-inch barrel liners. Only a small number are available, possibly enough for training and one major firing deployment by two battleships. Producing additional liners would require major industrial start-up time and costs.

Does anyone seriously believe that in the foreseeable future—even in time of crisis or conflict—the Navy will commit the time and resources to bring these two behemoths back into active service?


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