Armchair Generalist points us toward this Bob Novak editorial on the future of the Iowa and the Wisconsin, the last two battleships on the Navy list. Although plans are in motion to permanently decommission the last two battleships in the fleet, the Marine Corps still hopes that they will be retained in light of their unique ability to supply indirect artillery fire in hostile littoral areas.
The Navy high command is determined to get rid of the battleships, relying for support on an expensive new destroyer at least 10 years in the future. This is how Washington works. Defense contractors, Pentagon bureaucrats, Congressional staffers and career-minded officers make this decision that may ultimately be paid for by Marine and Army infantrymen.
Marine desire to reactivate the Iowa and Wisconsin runs counter to the DD(X) destroyer of the future. It will not be ready before 2015, costing between $4.7 billion and $7 billion. Keeping the battleships in reserve costs only $250,000 a year, with reactivation estimated at $500 million (taking six months to a year) and full modernization more than $1.5 billion (less than two years).
On the modernized battleships, 18 big (16-inch) guns could fire 460 projectiles in nine minutes and take out hardened targets in North Korea. In contrast, the DD(X) will fire only 70 long-range attack projectiles at $1 million a minute. The new destroyer will rely on conventional 155-millimeter rounds that Marines say cannot reach the shore. Former longtime National Security Council staffer William L. Stearman, now executive director of the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association, told me, “In short, this enormously expensive ship cannot fulfill its primary mission: provide naval surface fire support for the Marine Corps.”
As you well know, I’m quite the fan of the battleship, but I’m skeptical of this argument. First, I’m unconvinced that mothballing the ships is an effective solution. Re-activating the ships (and, in the case of Iowa, repairing the damaged B-turret) would take at least six months. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation in which we could definitively predict the necessity of shore bombardment more than six months in advance. Thus, while there might be an argument for keeping the ships in active service, I’m unconvinced that they could ever be effectively mobilized in the current strategic setting.
Moreover, the battleships are extremely expensive mechanisms for the delivery of ordinance. I’m not so concerned about their vulnerability to air attack; most modern anti-ship missiles would have little effect on a ship as large and as well protected as the Wisconsin. However, they are quite vulnerable to submarine attack, and given that they need to be within 20 miles of a coastline in order to carry out their mission, they would be easy to find and would make a tempting target.
Finally, I am unconvinced by Novak’s argument that the Navy is inherently anti-battleship, and just wants to decommission these ships so that it can purchase the DD(X). The two ships in question are in excess of sixty years old, which is very, very old for a warship. They underwent modernization in the 1980s, but most of their components (including, notably, their gun turrets) remain 1940s era technology. They are impressive platforms, and can carry out missions not originally envisioned, such as the delivery of cruise missiles, but it makes more sense to me to develop newer, cheaper platforms intended to accomplish these missions, rather than to rebuild these ancient ships. For example, it would cost two Littoral Combat Ships apiece simply to reactivate the battleships, and more to modernize and keep them in operation.
So, like AG, I’m inclined to think that the day of the battleship has passed. Nevertheless, I would not consider myself too disappointed if the Marine Corps lobbying was successful, and the two ships were retained. Indeed, if the Navy had demonstrated a bit more foresight in the 1960s, it might have kept the battlecruisers Alaska and Guam, which could have carried out the envisioned operations at a lower cost than the Iowa class battleships.