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Last battleships to become museums

WASHINGTON—Congress has signed off on a measure to turn the Navy's last two battleships, the USS Iowa and the USS Wisconsin, into museums.

The fiscal year 2006 defense appropriations bill, passed Wednesday night by the Senate and by the House of Representatives on Thursday, contained a provision that decommissioned the two vessels. The Iowa will be given to the state of California, and the Wisconsin will remain in Norfolk, Va., where it's been docked for five years.

The action closes out a struggle by a small group of advocates who wanted the Navy to modernize the ships with up-to-date munitions and technology.

The Navy believes that most wars in the future will be fought in or near coastal waters.

Members of the United States Naval Fire Support Association argued that only the 16-inch guns aboard the two battleships could provide the huge amounts of firepower needed to support a full-scale amphibious landing by Marines if the United States fought in a war in such places as Taiwan or North Korea.

The Navy disagreed, saying that bringing the big ships back into service would cost too much money and require too many sailors. Arleigh Burke-class cruisers and DDG destroyers serve the fire support role now, and Navy officials say the new DD(X) destroyers will cover the job when they go into service in 2014.

Critics doubt the DD(X)'s promised capabilities and say the Navy can't afford to wait nearly another decade for the ships to be built.

Ted Yadlowsky, deputy director of the United States Naval Fire Support Association, called the congressional action "a setback," but said the group will continue to lobby lawmakers on the need to provide adequate naval firepower for amphibious operations.

"The bottom line is that you've got to have credible naval gunfire support for troops ashore," Yadlowsky said. "And the Navy doesn't have it now, and they're not going to have it."

A report issued Dec. 13 by the Government Accountability Office said that defense officials acknowledge that gaps exist in the Navy's ability to provide adequate fire support. However, the report said officials believe that "the risk associated with these gaps is acceptable" and will not significantly affect the ability of commanders to execute war plans.

Defense officials don't believe modernizing the ships would be cost effective or that the modernized ships would "significantly reduce the risk" to troops in comparison with other weapons programs, the report said.

The two ships, each nearly three football fields long, have been decommissioned and reactivated several times in their 60-year history. They were last deactivated in 1991, but Congress put them back into reserve status five years later. The battleships' 16-inch guns can hurl a 2,000-pound shell 24 nautical miles. The last Navy ship to fire its guns at land targets was the USS Wisconsin, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USS Wisconsin, USS Iowa

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