Pulling out the big guns

Robert Novak, apparently taking a break from playing politics with the CIA, is reporting on a fight on Capitol Hill between the Marine Corps and the Navy. The Navywants to donate the last two battleships it owns, the mothballed Iowa and Wisconsin, into museums. The Corps wants them kept around for possible use. And since the Corps is a part of the Navy, they don’t have much chance of winning without garnering some serious political help.

This is a subject very near and dear to me. I am a huge battleship fan. I can discuss the evolution of the Dreadnaught from the USS South Carolina right through the Wisconsin, discussing how certain ships were evolutionary progressions (Utah, Pennsylvania), while others (Texas, Nevada, Washington) represented major revolutionary advances. I can do the same with the Royal Navy, which invented the modern battleship. Hell, I even have an essay mostly worked out that discusses the USS Alaska vessels, and whether they are large cruisers or battlecruisers, but I don’t want to bore everyone to death.

That being said, I have to sadly come down on the side that the day of the battleship is over. They pretty much peaked shortly after World War I, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that it was obvious that their time was gone.

The Marines want to keep the battleships around for shore bombardment purposes, to “soften up” places they plan to invade. And there is very little that can wreck a defense quite like fifty pounds of high explosive, wrapped inside six feet and 2660 pounds of steel, leaving the gun barrel at over 1,600 miles an hour. (Figures given for the armor-piercing round, which can go through 30 feet of concrete. The high-explosive round carries 154 pounds of explosive inside 1746 pounds of steel. Full technical specs here.)

That’s for one gun. Each Iowa-class battleship carries nine of these 66-foot, 8-inch long monsters, and can fire them twice a minute. That’s nearly fifty thousand pounds of incoming shellfire in sixty seconds — enough to vaporize nearly anything. The can reach out and touch targets nearly 20 miles away — and a lot of the world is within 20 miles of the ocean.

These weapons represent the peak of American big gun development — and, arguably, the world. And the Iowas were the peak of battleship development, 57,000+ tons of steel devoted to the sole purpose of moving those guns around the world to where they were needed.

But the battleships were doomed by the airplane. The Iowas have up to a foot of hardened steel along their sides, protecting them from attack, but their decks are only half that thick. By the end of World War II, it became obvious that we simply couldn’t build a ship with a deck strong enough to keep out bombs. And even today, most ship-attacking weapons don’t hit from the sides — they either hit from below (torpedoes) or above (missiles), bypassing the armored belt.

So yeah, an Iowa could shrug off most anti-ship missiles out there — as long as it’s obliging to hit it on her armored belt or turret or conning tower, maybe some parts of the deck. But they remain frighteningly vulnerable to a “soft kill” or “mission kill” — all her radars and other sensors are utterly vulnerable, and a ship that can shoot 20 miles but can’t see is virtually useless.

There are numerous other downsides to the battleships, as spelled out by many commenters here (including the formidable Steven Den Beste). Let me recap a few:

1) Their machinery is very, very old. We no longer have the ability to readily make spare parts. We would end up having to cannibalize the two museum ships (the New Jersey and Missouri) for the inevitable breakdowns.

2) The guns are also very old, and we no longer have the industrial base to work them. They need new liners for the barrels every 250 or so shots, and we haven’t made any new ones in decades. We’ve been living on the spares made during World War II ever since, and we simply can’t make more without a huge investment in retooling.

3) They are crew hogs. During World War II, it took over 2,700 men to run the ships. Since their rebuilding in the 1980’s, their complement was reduced to between 1,500 and 2,000 crew — enough to run three or four modern combatants.

4) The Iowa herself is “damaged goods.” The center gun of her second turret exploded in 1989, and it was never fully repaired — she ony has six functional main guns.

5) The United States hasn’t made an opposed landing in 55 years. We can pretty much “walk” ashore anywhere we might need to. Our military superiority is such that we simply don’t have to worry about such things.

If we need a dedicated shore-bombardment vessel, it’d be a lot cheaper to simply build one. During World War I and World War II, the British dealt with the problem by putting a turret or two off an old battleship on a specially-built hull, called it a “monitor,” and sent them off into battle. We could do the same, putting one or two of those guns on a new ship, or working on a whole new gun — the Navy developed a remarkably effective 8″ gun in the 70’s, for example.

But the battleship’s day, sadly, has passed. The one-time queen of the seas lost her crown a long time ago, and to keep dragging them out is a waste of scarce resources. Let them enjoy their well-deserved retirement.

I, too, mourn their passing. The Iowas are some of the most beautiful, graceful, and awe-inspiring vessels to ever sail the seven seas, and they have given fine, honorable service. But the harsh reality is that they simply aren’t needed.

At least this time no innocents were injured...
Busy, Busy, Busy


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