WASHINGTON -- U.S. Marines, while fighting valiantly in Iraq, are on the verge of serious defeat on Capitol Hill. A Senate-House conference on the Armed Services authorization bill convening this week is considering turning the Navy's last two battleships, the Iowa and Wisconsin, into museums. Marine officers fear that deprives them of vital fire support in an uncertain future.
Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the current commandant of the Marine Corps, testified on April 1, 2003, that loss of naval surface fire support from battleships would place his troops "at considerable risk." On July 29 this year, Hagee asserted: "Our aviation is really quite good, but it can, in fact, be weathered." Nevertheless, Marine leaders have given up a public fight for fear of alienating Navy colleagues.
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. Therefore, 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."