Beyond battleship politics

The USS Iowa is America's second World War II battleship brought out of mothballs. Political factors have been publicized in the controversy over what city to designate as the Iowa's home port. The more important question is where this behemoth should go and what it should do when it is out of port. As current maneuvers in the Caribbean suggest, naval power can go almost anywhere. Attention should not be diverted from such military issues by speculation on whose political influence did what, now that the Navy has decided to homeport the Iowa in New York.

The Reagan administration plans to deploy four WWII battleships as part of its buildup to a 600-ship Navy. In the next few months the Navy will go before Congress asking for funds for the final two, the USS Missouri and the USS Wisconsin.

The refurbished battlewagons carry 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles with unclassified ranges extending from 300 to 1,600 miles. The warheads on cruise missiles can be either conventional or nuclear, something no opponent is going to know until impact. With further changes planned in the configuration of these battleships over the next decade, it will be possible to carry as many as 360 of these small, low-flying subsonic missiles. They can attack land targets as easily as other ships.

Without taking anything from the World War II image of ''battleship'' effectiveness, these huge vessels have become something else. They are in effect weapons platforms in transition to the Navy of the 21st century.

Imagine a Soviet radar technician either afloat on one of his country's new, first-class warships or bunkered in a command post in Leningrad or Vladivostok. Seeing 80 or so objects on his screen, and knowing the Iowa was deployed, he might not be sure if they were low-flying geese or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The US has to consider whether the value of such a platform is worth raising such potentially hazardous uncertainties.

The Falklands war gave the public its first partial glimpse of how naval warfare has entered the missile era. The present movement of the battleship New Jersey with its escort ships 100 miles off the the west coast of Nicaragua gives another partial focus on how battleships can be used for national security.

It is vital that strategic considerations not be sidetracked by the politics or economics of selecting home ports, with the accompaniment of ''jobs, jobs, jobs,'' to quote New York Senator D'Amato. The nation's leaders can help by sharply defining what it is these ships, nuclear capable, will do and why it is necessary for them to do it. With consideration soon to begin on funding two more surface action groups, now is the time.

To stress the military side is not to ignore possible political factors impinging on Pentagon decisions. The Navy needs to follow through on assurances it will give a full accounting of why it chose New York's Staten Island to receive the economic plum ($500 million per year and up to 9,000 jobs) of the Iowa's seven-ship surface action group.

It is encouraging to hear that professional sailors - the officers involved on the first rung of the homeporting decisionmaking process for the Iowa - chose the Staten Island site over Boston and Newport, R.I., on the military merits. This recommendation was said to have been made long before any political considerations were raised.

Still the Navy appears to owe an apology to Boston officials, who were in Washington making a final case for their port less than 48 hours before Secretary Lehman designated New York as the home port last week. They reportedly had been led to believe a final decison was three weeks away. Since it had apparently already been made, they could have been informed in time to avoid their evidently wasted investment in time and money.

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