Tuesday, September 6, 2005

By denigrating the battleships through a misinformation campaign on Capitol Hill, the Navy has convinced both Armed Services Committee to donate our two reserve battleships, Iowa and Wisconsin, as museums. Should this maneuver succeed, our Marines will have no essential, lifesaving naval surface fire support (NSFS) for the foreseeable future.

This could cost us substantial American lives in inevitable future conflicts in the littorals where most of the world’s population lives. As Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee once testified, the absence of NSFS places his troops “at considerable risk.”

According to the Navy, the annual cost of keeping each battleship in reserve is only $250,000. In other words, there is no valid reason whatsoever for getting rid of these invaluable, unique and irreplaceable ships.

So, why is the Navy trying so hard to effect this? A Nov. 19, 2004, GAO report on NSFS revealed that battleships are, in effect, the only potential sources of NSFS in sight.(This was reinforced by subsequent developments.) Moreover, in the report, following the Navy’s arguments against reactivation came the statement: “Marine Corps supports the strategic purpose of reactivating two battleships” in accordance with Public Law 104-106, requiring the Navy to maintain these ships in reserve until it has within the fleet an NSFS capability equaling or exceeding that of the battleships. Since the Navy cannot possibly meet this standard, it is asking Congress to repeal the law.

The GAO report came out as the Navy was (and still is) engaging in a full-court press promoting its pet project, the futuristic and very expensive DD(X) destroyer. One can imagine that the Navy feared that eventually logic might well dictate reactivating the battleships, thus diverting funds from the DD(X). The safe thing to do, then, was to get Congress to take them completely off the board, so neither the Marines nor anyone else could ever get them brought into active service, no matter how badly they are needed. (Probably in the face of congressional support for the Navy, Marine Corps leadership has, sadly, given up.) Our good fighting Marines certainly deserve better than this.

The Navy anti-battleship campaign on the Hill probably began on March 15, with a Navy briefing of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Maryland Republican, chairman of the House Projection Forces Subcommittee (which handles naval issues). This briefing was replete with anti-battleship arguments that were untrue or misleading, even, for example, exaggerating the “vulnerabilities” of this, the world’s least vulnerable ship. My associates and I, who were present, objected to this Navy view of the battleships, so Mr. Bartlett asked us to prepare a rebuttal. Our well-documented rebuttal can be read on www.usnfsa.org.

For example, the Navy always harps on the battleship’s being too costly and manpower intensive, but as a former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the late Bob Stump, Arizona Republican, quite accurately stated: “Measured against their capabilities, [battleships] are the most cost-effective and least manpower intensive warships we have.” For example, delivering a given weight of ordnance on target in a given period with DD(X)s or with carriers would require much more manpower and use far more costly platforms than would the battleship, which could deliver a far greater variety of ordnance out to over 100 miles.

The Navy is touting the DD(X) as the ultimate in a land-attack ship-providing NSFS; however, the first ship won’t be fielded until 2015, if then. On July 20, a Congressional Budget Office rep testified that the first DD(X) could cost $4.7 billion. The Navy’s estimated $3.3 billion for one DD(X) could, in less that two years, reactivate, thoroughlymodernize (adding to each 96 vertical missile cells) and support both battleships. For NSFS, this buys us 18 16-inch guns with accurized projectiles — from 2,700-lb. AP deep penetrators, which can take out most hardened targets in North Korea, down to already well-tested 530-lb. 115-mile-range-guided 11-inch sabot rounds, plus 24 five-inch guns. One DD(X) has for NSFS only two 155-mm (6.1-inch) guns firing an advanced round that weighs only 63 lbs. on impact. This could not meet Marines’ NSFS requirements.

The battleship is our only ship that can risk a visible show of force in high threat areas, important in the war on terrorism. With vast storage and fuel capabilities and extensive workshops and medical facilities, it is an ideal securelogisticsbase. Modernized, these ships can steam over 30 years and make 33 knots.

“I would hate to see a premature demise of the battleships USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin without a suitable replacement on station. In my personal experience in combat, the battleship is the most effective naval fire-support platform in the history of naval warfare” retired Marine Commandant .P.X. Kelley said in June.

William L. Stearman is executive director of the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association. A former Navy officer, he twice served on the National Security Council (1971-76 and 1981-93).

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