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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
South Jersey

December 15, 1983

Navy defends use of battleship in Beirut

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Why the New Jersey?

Why, after the battleship has been sitting off the Lebanese coast for more than two months, were its huge guns - which hurl shells that weigh as much as a Volkswagen - finally used yesterday?

The bombardment, in response to an attack minutes earlier on unarmed U.S. reconnaissance planes, reportedly shook the earth along the coast.

In earlier strikes at Druse and Syrian guns and missiles in the Lebanese mountains, the Navy has used either fighter-bombers or shellfire by the 5-inch guns on destroyers or a guided missile cruiser.

Nonetheless, a State Department spokesman here insisted repeatedly that the cannonading did not represent an "escalation" of the fighting.

According to Navy sources, five reasons prompted the local commander, Rear Adm. Jerry O. Tuttle, to decide to employ the 41-year-old guns, which hadn't been fired in combat since the Vietnam war:

-- The ability to hit back at once. The policy of "instant retaliation," started yesterday, so immediately after purported Syrian guns and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) let go at the reconnaissance planes, the New Jersey's big guns were able to begin pounding the sites. The battleship was two miles offshore and about 13 miles from its targets.

-- The permanence and "hardness" of the targets. Use of the 16-inch guns, which can take out a concrete pillbox with a direct hit, "can only be effective against targets in fixed positions," a Navy spokesman said. Some of the earlier attacks on the planes had come from Soviet-made SAM missiles, which can be launched from the shoulder.

-- The loss of two airplanes and a pilot in an air strike Dec. 4. The planes then ran into unexpectedly dense anti-aircraft fire, the Navy said. After that strike, questions were raised why the Navy had failed to use the New Jersey, which would not have endangered the pilots' lives. At that time the Navy claimed that it needed more precision than would be possible with the guns of the battleship, which then was 19 miles off shore.

-- The terrifying psychological effect of the shells. As they come in, they "sound as is you were standing alongside the railroad and a great big freight train was passing at about 80 miles an hour," according to retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They leave 20 by 50-foot craters.

In yesterday's strike, the New Jersey's guns lifted 1,900-pound, high-capacity shells to a point not only 13 miles away, but three quarters of a mile high. Its armor-piercing projectiles, which weren't used, can weigh 2,700 pounds.

The Navy didn't have a damage assessment immediately. "It leaves a lot of dents in the landscape," said a Navy spokesman. Presumably the targeted anti-aircraft guns and missiles also were in an unpopulated area.

"When you have more space you use naval gunfire," Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Tuesday, "which normally has to be adjusted - which is a polite way of saying that the first shell doesn't always get right on the target - sometimes the second one doesn't, either."

"When it does, it's extremely effective, if you've got room, so to speak."

He said there is no limitation on what option the local commander elects to use. "Naval gunfire is a very effective way of interdicting a target... and responding to attacks on our perfectly legal and very necessary reconnaissance flights."

However, a Navy spokesman claimed that "you can get the same precision with naval gunfire as you can with bomber aircraft if you have accurate grid coordinates." The Navy in Lebanon, with four-man fire-control ground spotters, can obtain such coordinates, the spokesman said.

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