- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

The 2006 National Defense Authorization Act would strike the battleships USS Iowa and Wisconsin from the Navy register and turn them into museums. This sounds attractive, but it would in fact erect monuments to folly, placing the lives of thousands of our Marines at risk. It would void the previous law, PL104-106, that instructed the Navy to keep two Iowa-class battleships readily available until the Navy certifies to Congress that it has fire-support capability that equals or exceeds that of the Iowa-class battleships. The Navy is unable to do this. Instead, it has taken steps detrimental to reactivation of these ships.

Why this reaction? Simply put, there has been a failure of strategic insight on the part of leadership. A July 2002 meeting between then Navy Secretary Gordon England — now up for confirmation as deputy secretary of defense — and the U.S. Naval Surface Fire Support Association focused on reactivating the battleships to provide the fire support that was then and is now missing. Mr. England stated that there was no need for that kind of firepower, as the only remaining threat was terrorism. When I brought up North Korea, China, Iran, and the impending war with Iraq, the Secretary replied: “We do not regard such scenarios as realistic.” Iraq is now history. Fortunately we did not have to fight our way ashore.

The world, however, remains a dangerous place, and the threat of terrorism is still but one head on the hydra. While North Korea continues to churn out nuclear weapons, some 12,000 well-dug-in artillery tubes along the DMZ hold Seoul hostage with the threat of overnight obliteration. China’s rapidly escalating military capabilities, alliances and thinly veiled threats are alarming. China clearly feels free to choose the time and means — including force — to resolve the Taiwan issue. How events will unfold in these places and in others, such as Iran, is anyone’s guess. But one thing is sure. Should there be conflict in these areas, the Marines will be involved, and it will not be an antiterrorist action.

Based on its vision, the Navy has focused on the development of a destroyer, the DD(X), equipped with two long range guns. No doubt this would be useful in breaking up terrorist camps scattered about the Pacific littorals, but it is not the gun you would want to bring to a major conflict. The small mass delivered to target makes these rounds ineffective against hardened positions. The cost per round forces the Navy to admit that high-volume fire is unaffordable. Lacking armor, the ship is highly vulnerable, despite its low-radar cross section. The cost — Congress demands a cap of $1.7 billion per ship — is out of proportion to its usefulness.

What can a supposedly antiquated battleship bring to the fight? During the Vietnam War, the New Jersey was on station for 6 months. It wreaked havoc on the DMZ and in the North, including destruction of the deeply buried North Vietnamese Army (NVA) command headquarters. Had this ship been deployed throughout that war, a fair fraction of the 2,000 aviators killed, missing in action or captured as prisoners of war would have been spared. No statistic conveys the impact of the New Jersey’s assault on the NVA better than the fact that North Vietnam demanded the withdrawal of the ship — not the B-52s — before it would continue with the Paris peace talks.

Technology now allows battleships to do far better. GPS guidance will ensure one-shot, one-kill of hard targets such as the North Korean gun emplacements and Chinese missile batteries. Shells weighing 525 pounds can reach as far as 115 miles in a life-saving time of only 3 minutes. Over the longer term, the battleship’s potential is truly revolutionary. Studies show that its massive firepower could be projected to at least 460 miles. With enhanced firepower and the ability to steam between Inchon and the Formosan Straits in less than a day and a half, two modernized battleships would have a chilling deterrent effect on aggressive designs by either the Chinese or the North Koreans.

The Navy has misled Congress regarding the battleship’s firepower, costs, survivability — the Nevada survived two atom bombs — and condition of equipment. The reality is that these ships could meet Marine Corps fire-support requirements in the near future. Nothing else can. Cost effective? Each battleship, with a reactivation and modernization cost of only $1.5 billion, has firepower equivalent to two aircraft carriers using only one-eighththemanpower. Moreover, the battleships’ response is all-weather, is generally faster and is impervious to air defenses.

As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, you go to war with the army you have. If in the future our brave Marines are getting butchered because of insufficient fire support, “the Army we have” then will be a result of the actions taken today. What should be done? Reactivate the battleships now. Would you rather have a museum or a live Marine?

Dennis Reilly, a physicist, serves as science advisor to the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association.

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