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A new unpublished House report contends that "a show of force" by the battleships could be "ultimately crucial in maintaining control of the strategically critical Persian Gulf"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."
"I hate to see these old systems go away," Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Armed Services Committee chairman, told me. Hunter, dealing with dozens of contested provisions in the authorization bill, specifically referred to saving B-52 bombers, stealth aircraft of Gulf War renown and the carrier John F. Kennedy. He indicated he is leaving the battleships to a subcommittee chairman, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. That is good news for the Marines, for Bartlett is an admirer of the great ships.
Bartlett considers the battleship an incomparable weapons system that could not be produced today. Its 16-inch, 50-caliber guns, capable of ranging 24 nautical miles, are the longest-range guns in the fleet. Why, then, is the Navy so insistent on dismantling the battleships to rely on the planned DD(X) destroyer that may not be ready before 2015 (costing over $23 billion)? The DD(X), slower and more vulnerable than battleships, never will satisfy the Marines' stated needs for fire-support.
"The Navy wants shiny new equipment," Bartlett told me. That desire comports with intimate ties between defense contractors and senior naval officers, who may be looking forward to retirement jobs. The Navy brass's antipathy towardbattleships dates back to destruction of the big ships by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Over objections by the admirals, battleships have served effectively in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars.
The House committee report's indictment of the Navy is unusually explicit: "The Navy has foregone the long-range fire support credibility of the battleship, has given little cause for optimism with respect to meeting near-term developmental objectives and appears unrealistic in planning to support expeditionary warfare in the mid-term. The committee views the Navy's strategy for providing naval surface fire support as 'high risk.'" That argument poses a test this week even for the mighty military-industrial complex.