Over the past month, Oliver North and Jim Carey, both well-respected columnists and distinguished veterans, have made strong, well-reasoned arguments for the re-activation of two mothballed U.S. battleships to address potential global threats. In his insightful April article, “Save the Battlewagons,” Oliver North credited the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) with saving his life, the lives of his platoon, and over 1,000 fellow Marines in Vietnam.
But could these steel warriors from America’s past rise up to meet new threats posed by an expansionist China; a communist Cuba; a leftist-led Venezuela; or a nuclear Iran? Are the remaining two Iowa-class battleships capable of securing the strategic Panama Canal, Straight of Gibraltar and Straight of Hormuz, as they did two decades earlier?
Opponents of battleship re-activation note that the dominance of carrier-based air power since WWII has made the once-mighty battleship a relic. They argue that advances in offensive weapons technology, naval manpower shortages, insufficient domestic shipyard capabilities, a lack of tooling facilities, and the cost prohibitive nature of re-activation in a time of federal budget shortfalls, dictate an end to the battleship.
However, many in Congress and the military believe dismissing the battleship is a bad idea. Veteran U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ), USMC Commandant Michael Hagee, and General Walt Bommer (USMC-Ret), have all questioned the Navy’s ability to support Marine expeditionary forces without suitable sea-based fire support that only battleships can provide.
In the 1980’s, President Reagan and then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman re-activated all four Iowa-class battleships at a total cost $1.7 billion. Both men believed that the ships not only provided a global presence to deter communist aggression, but also a lethal punch that remains unsurpassed even today.
The Iowa-class battleships have 9 16” guns that can throw a 2,700 pound projectile more than 20 miles inland; 32 Tomahawk ASM/LAM cruise missiles; 16 Harpoon ASM missiles; 12 Mk 28 5” 38 caliber guns; 4 Mk 15 20 mm Phalanx CIWS; and air/surface search radar. With a top speed of 33 knots, they are amazingly fast and carry an unbelievable amount of munitions. This exceptional combination of speed and power makes the Iowa-class battleship an awesome weapon.
With the ongoing China-Japan confrontation getting more explosive by the day, the always unpredictable China-Taiwan quarrel still simmering, and growing unrest in Latin America and the Middle East over perceived American hegemony, the need to support large Marine amphibious operations is rapidly becoming an important national security concern.
The China People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is increasing in size and expanding its technical competence in the area of amphibious operations. This is not for show. At some point in the very near future, China will use its amphibious forces in the South China Sea region. The most widely discussed target is Taiwan; however, Chinese amphibious forces could also systematically attack Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan or the Philippines to settle long-standing disputes over energy rights.
U.S. intelligence reports estimate China has already equipped and trained 15,000 amphibious troops for a coordinated landing on the shores of Taiwan. With a population of over 1 billion, a ballooning defense budget, and a long obsession with Taiwan independence, the number of Chinese amphibious troops prepared for battle is probably much larger.
With the threat of war in the Pacific a distinct possibility, it would be a mistake to dismiss the pivotal role that the two remaining battleships, the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin, can play in a military conflict. Not even the stealthy, futuristic DD(X) class ship, the next generation of Navy ship, can provide the overwhelming firepower of an Iowa-class battleship. Moreover, the new generation of lightly armored DD(X) ships will not be available until 2013. At a staggering $2-$3 billion dollars each, defense orders have already been slashed from 24 to 5 ships, making the Navy’s job of enforcing U.S. foreign policy interests even more difficult.
So, what can the U.S. Navy do in the interim to meet emerging global threats? It would take less than two years to re-activate the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin at the cost of one new DD(X) ship. The logical step would be to use the older Iowa-class battleships until new ships have been proven to be combat ready.
Future global conflicts will require large Marine amphibious landings, especially if China invades Taiwan and occupies the island before U.S. forces based in Guam and Japan can adequately respond. Battleships are well armored with a greater survivability rate than today’s lightly armored Aegis frigates. Possible military engagements with China, Cuba, and Venezuela will require maximum volume and lethality on hardened targets at close range. This is what the battleship does best. Commenting on the psychological impact of the battleship on hostile forces, Captain Larry Seaquist of the USS Iowa noted,
“When we would sail the USS Iowa down the Strait of Hormuz [to protect oil tankers] during the Iran-Iraq War, all of southern Iran would go quiet.”
The Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious invasion of the Pacific war, saw the battleships Tennessee, Maryland and West Virginia, all survivors of Pearl Harbor; fire an astounding 3,800 tons of shells at the island during the first 24 hours. During Desert Storm, the USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin rained dozens of cruise missiles into Iraq and Kuwait in support of allied ground forces. Likewise, the USS New Jersey performed magnificently during the Vietnam War. That type of firepower will be greatly needed in a battle with China in the Pacific or Cuba in the Gulf of Mexico.
Abandoning the battleship will only weaken the U.S. as its overseas commitments increase. Battleships are needed in the U.S. Navy arsenal more than ever today, since many of the ongoing disputes involve island nations such as Taiwan and Cuba. The demoralizing effect of 16” shells raining down for hours on a Chinese mechanized division or Cuban infantry division would be enormous.
Is it possible that Chinese dictator Wen Jiabao, North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il, Venezuelan leftist Hugo Chavez, or Iran’s terrorist-sponsor Mohammad Khatami could become the next Saddam Hussein, invading a helpless neighbor for economic and political gain? Let’s hope not.
But in case any of these tyrants have thoughts of using military force to conquer or intimidate, the Iowa-class battleships can provide a quick and deadly response. They are a flexible, mobile and powerful platform by which U.S. foreign policy objectives and democracy can be promoted worldwide. Battleships continue to be an unmistakable sign of American commitment and strength.
It will take up to two years to prepare the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin for active service. The U.S. Congress and U.S. Navy should start the re-activation process right now by implementing recommendations for capital improvements that have already been made.
For once the last two great battleships are converted into museums, they will be gone forever.