- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

There is no weapon system in the world that comes even close to the visible symbol of enormous power represented by the battleship.”

Gen. P.X. Kelly, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)

The above words of the former Marine Commandant resonate with me. In 1969, gunfire from the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) saved my rifle platoon in Vietnam.

During its six months in-theater, the USS New Jersey’s 16-inch guns were credited with saving more than 1,000 Marines. The North Vietnamese so feared the ship they cited it as a roadblock to the Paris peace talks. Our leaders, as so often in that war, made the wrong decision and sent it home. Now, 36 years later, the U.S. is poised for another battleship blunder.

After the USS Iowa (BB-61) and USS Wisconsin, (BB-64) were taken out of active service in 1992, Congress passed Public Law 104-106, a 1996 measure requiring our last two battleships be kept ready for reactivation. But today’s Navy brass wants Congress to repeal the law, strike the ships from Naval Vessel Register — the official list of available ships — and donate them to museums.

The Navy, focusing on a new “strategic vision” called “sea basing” claims the battleships’ proven firepower is no longer necessary for Naval Surface Fire Support (NSFS) — the kind of mission that saved my Marines’ lives three decades ago.

Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations says, “Marines will be supported by combat air.” That’s great — except when bad weather keeps the planes on deck instead of overhead. It also ignores the full range of support economically available from well-protected, highly mobile, gun- and missile-firing battleships. This is not your grandfather’s battlewagon.

In 1983, the USS New Jersey was the best support available to the Marines after their barracks were bombed in Beirut. During the “tanker war,” in the mid-1980s, every time the USS Iowa steamed into the Persian Gulf, the Iranians ceased hostilities.

In Desert Storm, cruise missiles launched from both the USS Missouri (BB-63) and the USS Wisconsin attacked scores of targets deep inside Iraq. An entire Iraqi Naval Infantry unit surrendered to one of USS Wisconsin’s unmanned aerial vehicles. Unlike any other naval vessel, battleships combine survivability, speed and immediate, heavy firepower.

The Navy claims the “firepower problem” — Marines call it “steel on target” — will be solved by a new, 5-inch, Extended Range Guided Munition (ERGM). The ERGM program has been under development at great cost since 1996, the Government Accountability Office said in 2004 it is rife with cost overruns and “its problems have led to test failures and delays.”

In truth, the ERGM should have been scrubbed in March 2000 when the Marines told Congress that neither ERGM nor any other 5-inch round would meet Marines’ lethality requirements.

Worse, a May 2001 internal Navy report admitted ERGM won’t meet Marines’ volume of fire requirements either. Both needs can easily be met by the battleships’ existing 16-inch guns.

Navy planners insist a new DD(X)-class of ships — also still in development — will surpass battleships’ NSFS capabilities. But on April 1, 2003, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, testified U.S. expeditionary forces “will remain at considerable risk” for want of NSFS until the DD(X) joins the fleet “in significant numbers.” The Navy has since reduced the DD(X) buy from 24 ships to five. This leaves Marines high and dry unless Iowa and Wisconsin are available for rapid reactivation.

Even if the Navy ordered more of the DD(X) class — at $2 billion to $3.5 billion each — these small, thin-skinned vessels are highly vulnerable to “sea skimmer” missiles. And a terrorist action, like the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that crippled the destroyer and killed 17, would do similar damage to a DD(X). Naval officers admit heavily armored battleships are practically impervious to such strikes, but claim the DD(X) will make up in stealth and speed what it lacks in armor. To embattled Marines, that means the nearest naval gunfire support will be moving fast far out at sea — which doesn’t contribute to accurate “steel on target” for troops fighting ashore.

Our Navy has no capability for providing the lethal, high-volume firepower required if — God forbid — we have to land Marines on the coasts of Iran or North Korea or in defense of Taiwan.

When the Marines assaulted Um Qasr at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, they had to rely on naval gunfire from an Australian frigate. The Navy’s answer is to wait six years for the costly, unproven ERGM system and a half-dozen or fewer, yet-to-be-built DD(X) ships. But America’s enemies may not wait that long. And America’s taxpayers may not want to pay the price — in blood or treasure. The DD(X)-ERGM experiments are estimated to cost $12 billion to $16 billion.

It would take less than two years to reactivate the Iowa and Wisconsin. The battleships are 10 percent faster than the still-conceptual DD(X). Each brings to bear twelve 5-inch and nine 16-inch guns — capable, with new munitions, of firing accurately at targets nearly 100 miles away. The two battleships can also carry nearly twice as many cruise missiles as all the DD(X) hulls combined. All that firepower is available for $2 billion — the cost of one DD(X).

Sometimes, as I tell my grandchildren, older is better. In the case of the two battlewagons, older is not only superior, it’s also much less expensive.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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