WASHINGTON—Capitol Hill lawmakers are considering whether to retire the Navy's last two battleships, the USS Iowa and the USS Wisconsin, and turn them into museums. Critics warn that the move could leave Marines vulnerable in future battles.
The Navy expects that most such battles will be in or near coastal waters, and that it will need ships that can deliver huge amounts of gunfire to support land operations. Cruisers and destroyers serve that purpose now, and the Navy expects the new DD(X) destroyer to take over the job when it goes into service in 2014.
But a small group of critics doubts the DD(X)'s capabilities and says the Navy can't afford to wait until the next decade.
"At present the Navy's active fleet has no effective NSFS (naval fire support) capability," says a statement by the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association, a group that supports reactivating the two battleships. "The Navy's attempt to rectify this serious deficiency by developing long-range 5-inch and 6.1-inch 155 mm gun systems and medium-range missiles is not adequate."
Currently, the Navy uses 5-inch guns on its destroyers and cruisers to support land operations.
The battleship supporters say that only battleships can provide accurate and high-volume fire in all weather and conditions.
Battleships ruled the seas in the first half of the 20th century until the Japanese sank five of them in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Aircraft carriers then became predominant.
The last two U.S. battleships have been decommissioned and reactivated several times in their 60-year history. They were last deactivated in 1991, but Congress ordered them back into reserve status five years later after determining that the Navy would have a gap in its ability to support Marine Corps land operations until early in the 21st century.
From World War II until the 1991 Persian Gulf War, support for the Marines was provided mostly by the Iowa-class battleships' 16-inch guns, which can hurl a 2,000-pound projectile 24 nautical miles.
The last Navy ship to fire its guns in support of U.S. troops ashore was the USS Wisconsin in 1991.
A GAO report said the Iowa and Wisconsin together cost about $1.4 million a year to maintain.
Members of Congress soon will decide whether to decommission the two battleships for good as they work out final decisions in the defense authorization and spending bills.
The Iowa and the Wisconsin each are nearly three football fields long. The Iowa would become a floating museum in Stockton, Calif., and the Wisconsin would become a museum in Norfolk, Va.
"The issue here is the need to press forward with a new ship and new technology to meet 21st-century threats," said Landon Hutchens, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command. "The battleships performed marvelously in the 20th century, with 20th-century technology. DD(X) incorporates stealth technology, precision-guided long-range naval fire support, the capability to shoot down enemy aircraft before they can fire anti-ship missiles and high-tech command and control communications capabilities."
The Navy originally planned to put 24 DD(X) destroyers into service but now says it needs eight to 12. The first two are expected to cost more than $3 billion each; later ones will cost $2.2 billion to $2.6 billion per ship.
The Navy says the DD(X)'s 155 mm guns will be able to fire 10 precision-guided rounds a minute at ranges of up to 83 nautical miles.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that it would cost $500 million and take 20 to 40 months to reactivate the battleships. The Naval Fire Support Association says that for the cost of one DD(X), the Navy can modernize the two battleships and add extended-range munitions and up-to-date guidance systems.
The Navy dismisses those claims as unrealistic.
Until last year, the Marines supported reactivating the ships. The Marine commandant, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, told Congress two years ago that an absence of adequate naval gunfire support placed his troops "at considerable risk," and several retired Marine generals have spoken in favor of the battleship plan.
The Marines now say that bringing back the big battleships would be too expensive and the ships would require too many sailors to operate.
Marine Corps spokeswoman Maj. Gabrielle Chapin said the Marines thought it was "no longer feasible nor economical" to keep the battleships in reserve status.
She said the Marines now backed the Navy's research and development efforts into new extended-range munitions and its plan to commission the first DD(X) in 2014.
William L. Stearman, the executive director of the Naval Fire Support Association, said battleship advocates supported the development of the DD(X), at least as a research and development program, but didn't think the DD(X) could provide Marines with the support that battleships could until future systems come on line.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John J. Sheehan said the battleship wasn't only a potent symbol of American power but also an asset that existed now, instead of one that might exist in the future.
"You can argue that if the B-52 (bomber) continues to play a role in the U.S. war-fighting tool kit, then the same argument applies to the battleship, especially with a cruise-missile capability," Sheehan said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USS Wisconsin, USS Iowa
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USS Wisconsin
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