New Jersey back in action
By MIKE CONNOLY
Gannett News Service
Calif. - President Reagan recommissioned the historic battleship
New Jersey yesterday with a warning that the nation's defenses,
threatened by a powerful Soviet challenge, must remain "second
The $360 million refitting of the New Jersey
at the Long Beach Naval Ship Yard neatly symbolizes the president's
desire to increase the strength of the Navy as well as expand
the fleet from 460 ships to 600.
Yesterday's event also gave the president
a stage from which to tell Congress, which has grown increasingly
reluctant to approve his military budgets, that he intends to
continue with his five-year $1.6 trillion defense buildup.
"We have no choice but to maintain ready
defense forces that are second to none," Reagan said from
a podium on the port side of the battleship. "Yes, the cost
is high - but the price of neglect would be infinitely higher."
But while the ship served as a convenient
symbol for Reagan's commitment to a stronger defense, it also
served as a target for the president's critics.
A handful of demonstrators, waving signs that
read "Let them eat battleship" and "We build America,
not the New Jersey," lined the streets alongside the naval
yard yesterday to protest what they called Reagan's "obscene"
funding of an increased military budget while making cuts in
In addition, the Navy's program to bring back
the battleship has also come under fire from others, like Sen.
Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., who have complained that the huge ships
are "sitting ducks" that belong in museums rather than
on the high seas.
Nevertheless, yesterday's ceremony belonged
to the president, Navy Secretary John Lehman Jr., and their guests,
many of whom had served on the New Jersey during fighting in
World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Reagan told the estimated crowd
of 9,000, who were there by special invitation, that "freedom
to use the seas is our nation's lifeblood" and that "maritime
superiority for us is a necessity."
He also held out the New Jersey as an example
of a weapons program that had been completed both under budget
and ahead of schedule.
Yesterday's ceremony will mark the beginning
of a fourth career for the New Jersey, which was launched one
year to the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But
Reagan found a much different ship than the one that was moth-balled
just over 13 years ago.
The inside of the Iowa-class battleship, which
is just under three football fields long, has been gutted to
make way for a new weapons system that the Navy believes will
give it the "ultimate edge of high technology."
Instead of trading salvos with an enemy, the
New Jersey will act instead as the "platform" for a
host of modern offensive weapons - including the cruise missiles
and surface-skimming weapons that proved so effective during
the Falklands War - as well as the defenses needed to counter
enemy weapons of the same kind.
It was Lehman's idea to refit the battleships,
but his high-tech salesmanship has been only moderately successful
in Congress, which has agreed to pay for similar refitting of
another of the battleships but has rejected funds for a third.
Lehman and the Navy argue that the battleship
of the past seems to have been designed with the weapons of the
future in mind. "It's as it 40 years ago the designers worried
about cruise missiles," Lehman said.
According to the Navy, a sea-skimming Exocet
missile of the kind used in the Falklands would "literally
bounce off" the New Jersey's 17-inch armor-plating. "And
we're getting it for $356 million, which is less than a frigate
(the navy's smallest ship)," said Lehman.