- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

“Our nation’s expeditionary forces will remain at considerable risk for want of suitable sea-based fire-support until DD(X) [destroyer] joins the fleet in significant numbers.”

Thus was Congress reminded of one of our most serious defense deficiencies by the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, in April 1 testimony. It could well be 30 years or more (if then) before the DD(X) could be fielded “in significant numbers,” which means there is no near-term naval surface fire support in sight for any future conflict in the vital littorals.

Gen. Tommy Franks wrote me, after September 11, “Naval surface fire support will remain key to the success of future littoral operations.”

Gen. Hagee’s predecessor, Gen. James Jones, was also greatly concerned about the “absence of naval gunfire.” In April 6, 2002, hearings, Senate Seapower subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy, quite correctly declared that there was “little hope the Navy would be able to meet Marine Corps fire support requirements in the foreseeable [future].” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vernon Clark only countered that “Marines are going to be supported by combat air.”

However, the Pentagon transformation director, retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, recently wrote that close air support, the kind Marines (and soldiers) need, is only about 25 percent effective. Unlike guns on ships, air support is affected by the weather and is not reliably tactically responsive.

There is, fortunately, right at hand a very effective and affordable solution to this gap, if the Navy could sidestep its groundless anti-battleship bias and think “outside the box,” as the Air Force has in extending the 1950s B-52 to 2040 by upgrading its systems. Public Law 104-106 requires the Navy to maintain the battleships Iowa and Wisconsin as reserve mobilization assets with the necessary logistics for both in active service, providing fire support for the Marine Corps. As the Marine Corps told Congress in 2000 and 2001, “Battleships can provide a significant fire support capability and maintaining them on the Naval Vessel Register ensures they are available in case of conflict.”

Consistent with the intent of the law, upgrading these two ships ready to fight on short notice could largely provide adequate naval surface fire support for our troops for up to 30 years, greatly mitigating a serious and potentially dangerous deficiency.

The two battleships strikingly proved their worth in the Persian Gulf war. Nevertheless, after the war, the Navy needlessly retired these two battleships. In a 2000 interview, Gen. Jones stated he regretted taking these ships out of service before the fire support problem had been fixed. Clearly the two battleships had fixed this problem and could have continued to do so up to now. The Navy, however, has disregarded this and has consistently defaulted in providing other fire support for Marines.

The Navy, however, reportedly believes it would be a waste of money to upgrade the two reserve battleships because they have no future utility in its 21st Century fleet. These ships were extensively modernized in the 1980s. They are by far the world’s most survivable warships and among the world’s fastest and most powerful capital ships. They have a good 30 years of service life left. The range of their 16-inch guns can be increased near-term to more than 40 miles with a proven 13-inch sabot round. Ranges of thousands of existing projectiles can be extended. And 100-miles-plus 11-inch guided sabot rounds will meet future Marine needs.

Most dramatically, 16-inch precision-guided scramjet projectiles, which Pratt & Whitney experts have declared “feasible,” could reach 500 miles in seven minutes. With sufficient support, these rounds could come into service as soon, if not sooner, than the DD(X). This could revolutionize naval warfare.

For example, reportedly, the air campaign launched against Iraq on March 21 “unleashed more than 2,500 missiles and bombs across Iraq in the first 72 hours.” (The Washington Post, April 27) Two battleships could, however, in 24 hours, have fired 2,600 precision-guided scramjet projectiles that could have reached any target in Iraq within seven minutes and with a variety of warheads, including deep-penetrators. The battleships would have had a total of 2,200 personnel as opposed to the many thousands more required for the 2,500.missiles and bombs.

The massively protected battleships are the only ships we have that do not have to retreat in the face of terrorist or other threats, as did the 5th Fleet when, on June 22, 2001, it prudently put out to sea in the face of an al Qaeda threat to avoid another USS Cole disaster.

Also, with their vast supply and fuel capacities, extensive repair shops and good hospital facilities, they can double as secure forward-based logistics support ships in high-threat areas. They could also effectively insert and extract special forces by sea or air (with helicopters and Ospreys) and provide them fire support as needed.

Upgrading the two battleships for rapid reactivation with adequate support would cost far less than the cost of one DDG destroyer, one SSGN (converted missile submarine) or one future DD(X). And as the late Bob Stump, recent chairman of the House Armed Services Committee once cogently stated: “Measured against their capabilities” battleships are “the most cost effective and least manpower intensive warships we have.”

William L. Stearman is executive director of the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association.

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