WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy's last two battleships appeared in December 2005 to have seen their final combat, on their way to being museum pieces. That's not necessarily so. A decision to be made on Capitol Hill this week will determine whether the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin are ready for a possible naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf with Iran.
Advocates of maintaining the World War II-vintage warships as troop-support firing platforms fell short nine months ago in efforts to block a provision in the Defense Department authorization bill sending the vessels to museums. Overlooked then was the bill's conference report requiring that the battle wagons be returned to active duty if the president declares a national emergency. But they will be useless relics unless this year's Defense authorization prohibits changes in the battleships that "would impair their military utility."
That language is opposed by a formidable array: the Navy high command, Defense Department bureaucrats, major defense contractors -- in short, the whole military-industrial complex, which prefers expensive, futuristic weapons over two generations-old standbys. The Marines, in a rare break from official Pentagon policy, are fighting for the battleships as their only naval surface support. What makes the Marines' cause more compelling than it was last year is the rise of Iran as a potential nuclear power.
A new unpublished House report contends that "a show of force" by the battleships could be "ultimately crucial in maintaining control of the strategically critical Persian Gulf" while "significantly bolstering our clout in dealing with increasingly troublesome Iran." Retired senior Foreign Service Officer William Stearman, a former naval officer and longtime National Security Council aide who has been fighting to save the Iowa and Wisconsin, points to "vulnerability of U.S. 5th Fleet ships." He contends "the very large Iranian inventory of deadly anti-ship missiles" offers Iran an opportunity to dominate the Gulf. Stearman told me that an answer to this menace would be dispatching the two battleships to the Gulf. Indeed, the Iowa's presence was leveraged against Iran in the 1988 "Tanker War."
At issue in the conference to resolve Senate and House differences on the authorization bill (continuing to meet this week) is language in the House Armed Services Committee report. It would require that the battleships "must not be altered in any way that would impair their military utility" and "must be preserved in their present condition."