Refitting four historic battleships -- $2 billion bargain or boondoggle?

Bringing back 40-year-old battleships may seem like an act of desperate folly in an age of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, but that's what the Navy has set its heart on.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger requested the money for just such a project on Wednesday when he asked Congress to approve a $32.6 billion increase in the defense budget.

Most World War II-vintage fast battleships, which could steam at up to 33 knots, have either been scrapped or preserved as memorials. But, surprisingly enough, the Navy still retains four of the sleek band that helped bring imperial Japan to its knees --the New Jersey and Missouri at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., and the Iowa and Wisconsin in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. All are in mothballs and in varying states of repair.

Current plans call only for the reactivation of two of these Iowa-class warships, the Iowa itself and the New Jersey, but a number of senior naval officers are known to favor putting all four to sea.

Each battlewagon bristles with nine 16-inch guns in three turret. Each gun can hurl a 2,700-pound projectile 22 miles. More to the point, perhaps, this formidable array of artillery can penetrate 30 feet of concrete at 8,000 yards.

While the Marine Corps would no doubt appreciate such firepower during an amphibious landing, the Navy clearly intends to employ the warships in other than a firesupport role, judging by the weaponry with which it wants to equip them.

Adm. Thomas Hayward, chief of naval operations, has said that he would like to install a variety of missiles aboard the ships: Harpoon and Tomahawk cruise missiles to tackle surface combatants, and NATO Sea Sparrows to deal with attacking aircraft.

Given such weapons, the New Jersey and Iowa would constitute much more fearsome opponents than they do now with their 16-inch batteries. Though a broadside from the big guns had a devastating effect on Japanese targets in World War II, a nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missile would have a vastly more destructive effect on an enemy ship or shore target today. Thus, as naval analysts point out, the Iowa and New Jersey will not return as World War II capital ships but as lethal cruise-missile platforms that cannot only provide gunfire support but show the flag around the world with a flair and penache unequaled by smaller warships.

Admiral Hayward told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee last year that the New Jersey could be reactivated with the weaponry he favors, along with the installation of electronic warfare gear and improved communications equipment, in 16 months at a cost of $255 million. "Comparable cost estimates for the other three battleships would be in the range of $300 million to $500 million, depending on ship checks, and would take about 24 months," he said. According to one report, the Defense Department is seeking $900 million to affix an assortment of missiles to the venerable decks of the New Jersey and Iowa -- $ 300 million for the former and $600 million for the latter.

But the truth to tell, Admiral Hayward would like to spend half a billion dollars on each of the four warships. The additional money would be used to remove their aft gun turrets and install 320 Tomahawks in vertical launchers besides accommodating some four-to-six antisubmarine helicopters and VSTOL (vertical short take-off and landing) aircraft.

The chief of naval operations has declared the battleship to be "one whale of a warship" and the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Robert Barrow, observed last year: "I would ask one to contemplate what four Iowa-class battleships with 16 -inch capability would do running around a place like . . . Cuba, for example."

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about the return of the battlewagons that , by Admiral Hayward's admission, will each require 70 officers and 1,500 men to put them to sea.

Vice-Adm. J. H. Doyle, deputy chief of naval operations for surface warfare, has said that reactivation of the New Jersey would be "on the bottom of my priority list" unless recruitment and retention levels improve and sufficient operations and maintenance funds are available. The Navy at present suffers from a shortage of some 20,000 petty officers and is expected to be hard put to find the 100,000-150,000 additional personnel that will be needed to man the enlarged fleet that Navy Secretary John Lehman is championing so vigorously.

"I would put the money and the people elsewhere," declares Norman Polmar, one of the nation's foremost authorities on the US Navy. In his view the funds that would be required to reactivate and man the two battleships could be better used for new construction "or installing vertical launch [missile] systems in Spruance-class destroyers."

But Paul Stillwell, senior editor of Proceedings, the journal of the US Naval Institute, believes manning the battleships will not be an insuperable problem. "The ships have such appeal that I think there would be volunteers," he says.

An inspection of the four warships by the Navy's Board of Inspection and Survey in 1977 found them fit for further service. The hulls were sound, but their teak decks were in poor condition and there was evidence that their steel decks were corroding underneath.

"In many areas such as medical, dental, food service, laundry, navigation, communications, radar, and EW [electronic warfare] gear, equipment is obsolete and should be replaced," Admiral Hayward told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee last year. The ships require upgrading to current habitability and sanitation standards besides conversion from burning heavy bunker oil to cleaner , lighter distillate fuel, he said. "It's almost back to the days of canvas bunks and that sort of business and the heads [bathrooms] are bad," he added.

The return of the battleship may be one of the oddest quirks in naval history. For many, the death knell of the capital ship was sounded in 1921 and again in 1923 when Gen. Billy Mitchell and a group of US Army aviators sunk a number of outdated warships in somewhat sensational demonstrations of air power.

But World War II seemed to confirm the vulnerability of the capital ship to air attack. The British lost the Prince of Wales and Repulse to Japanese aircraft off Malaya on Dec. 10, 1941.

For their part, the Japanese lost the mighty Yamato to some 280 US carrier aircraft on April 7, 1945, after earlier losing her sister ship Musashi to air attack.

Except for the loss of the USS Oklahoma and USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, the United States did not lose a single battleship throughout the Pacific campaign. Their massed anti-aircraft batteries shielded the vulnerable carriers and their big guns softened up enemy shores prior to invasion.

All four of the battleships currently mothballed served in the Pacific. The New Jersey sortied on her first combat operation in January 1944 and took part in the battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, bombarding Okinawa a year later. Altogether she steamed more than 220,000 miles and shot down 20 Japanese aircraft, five on one day.

The Iowa's carrer began somewaht inauspiciously. Steaming into Casco Bay, Maine, in 1943 she tore a hole in her bottom. Later that year she bore President Roosevelt across the Atlantic for the Cairo and Tehran conferences. She took part in the invasion of Saipan and the battle of Leyte Gulf and later bombarded the Japanese mainland.

All four battleships served in Korea.

The need for heavy gunfire support of ground troops in Vietnam led to the recommissioning of the New Jersey in April 1968, the Iowa and Wisconsin being cannibalized to prepare her for action.

The New Jersey was an awesome sight off the South Vietnamese coast as she blasted onshore targets, her big guns churning the sea as they spouted plumes of smoke and flame.

"I have seen the New Jersey fire, and I can tell you that the Marines found it a great comfort," wrote a young marine. "I can say that I sle pt a little better knowing that ship was around."

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