Groups urge Navy to upgrade, reactivate Iowa-class ships
By FRANK KUMMER
The USS New Jersey is one of four Iowa-class battleships which are now either mothballed or floating museums for gawking tourists a big mistake, say those who value the ships as instruments of war.
These preservationists are part of a movement to have the battleships retrofitted and reactivated as a critical symbol of America's naval dominance.
The Iowa Class Preservation Association has its own Web page (www.usnfsa.com) and is actively recruiting supporters to write to their local congressmen. Proponents are banding together to save the ships before it's too late.
And this month, John F. Lehman Jr., former Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, and William L. Stearman, a former National Security Council staff member, wrote an article in the magazine Proceedings to ask the military to reconsider its position.
They and other groups are pushing for Congress to declare the battleships, with their huge 16-inch guns, "national assets."
Essentially, the issue involves a Navy movement away from lumbering battleships toward high-tech, long-range, quick-strike operations so prevalent last year in Kosovo.
The Navy has been arguing since the early 1990s that the limited-distance firepower provided by the ships is outdated. The Navy says cruisers and aircraft carriers can take the place of battleships with modifications.
Aircraft carriers can launch squadrons of aircraft that can better pinpoint targets and reduce casualties, the Navy says.
The Navy is testing extended range guided munitions (ERGMs) that can strike at distances of 63 nautical miles and work with the five-inch guns now on cruisers and carriers.
The battleships' 16-inch guns, with their short distance firepower, will be no match.
It's also been noted that battleships, obviously, make big targets for an enemy.
But those in favor of preserving the battleships say the benefits of high-tech warfare can prove illusory. Missiles, they note, do not penetrate targets as well as 16-inch shells.
To understand the debate, it helps to understand the original purpose of the battleships.
Iowa-class ships were part of the Naval Surface Fire Support. That is, the Marine Corps would land off a coast controlled by an enemy and the battleships would fire ahead to clear the way.
Some of the ships were recommissioned for just that purpose in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
But with the decommissioning of the battleships, the Navy has no such capability right now. That has pitted the Navy against the Marines in the debate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has said Iowa-class ships are the "only remaining potential source of around-the-clock accurate, high-volume, heavy fire support for Marine and Army amphibious and forced-entry operations."
The Navy itself admits it does not have a system in place to take the place of the ships yet.
As of now, the Navy is limited to firing from the 5-inch guns that cruisers and destroyers are equipped with. The guns have a range of 13 miles.
The battleships' 16-inch guns, on the other hand, can attack at a range of 23 miles.
To address this deficiency, the Navy is developing Extended Range Guided Munitions for 5-inch guns which will have even a longer range than the shells fired from battleships.
Battleship proponents note that the extended range program is still in research and development and the first phase won't be ready until at least 2009 costing $5 billion.
They also note that preliminary tests have shown it may be feasible to fire extended-range munitions from the 16-inch guns of battleships at possibly double the range of those that would be used in 5-inch guns.
They say that battleships launched the first Tomahawk missile attacks against Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm. They also say that more than 90 percent of Kosovo is within range of the current ammunition fired from the 16-inch guns.
But the Navy says guided missiles are much more accurate than anything that can be fired from the bow of a battleship. The missiles are guided by global positioning systems.
Battleship proponents make the case that all the high-tech wizardry is prone to failure.
As evidenced by the failed strikes in Kosovo, much of the new technology depends on having near-perfect weather conditions to work effectively.
Citing a Naval Surface Warfare Center report, battleship proponents say the Iowa Class ships can be easily and cheaply retrofitted with ``state of the art automation'' to provide the firepower of two to three aircraft carriers and their attack squadrons.
Essentially, they say, sometimes low-tech is best.
Just having a big battleship parked off a coast is enough to scare the bejeezus out of many an enemy and force him to divert significant, critical manpower to keeping the ship in check.
In addition, they say, there is nothing yet available that can dish out the relentless and frightening pounding of a battleship.
In all, there are few battleships left in any Navy in the world. The last two battleships used by the United States in Operation Desert Storm the USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri are decommissioned.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, now a presidential hopeful, has been a supporter of the battleships.
``I can think of no compelling reason for mothballing the last of the battleships,'' McCain wrote in 1997, ''and every reason for retaining them in the fleet.''