On September 16, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech on the fantail of the USS Iowa in Los Angeles. Without going into either my views on Mr. Trump’s candidacy or the speech itself, I would like to dig into one particular topic Mr. Trump raised, about two and a half minutes into the speech. Betwixt an awful lot of hot air, he suggested recommissioning the battleship USS Iowa and her three sisters, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Missouri, some of the last battleships ever built, into the fleet of the United States Navy (USN). For a Trump comment, that’s actually fairly mainstream, an idea that is floated with some regularity in defense commentary circles. Such plans usually revolve around upgrading the old ships with modern technology and using them as flagships and support ships for the Navy, and I’m sure Mr. Trump’s would too, if he actually put any detail to so little a thing as a plan. However, such a plan must be understood as what it is, at best foolish and expensive, and at worst an active retardation of the Navy’s global fighting ability.
Let’s go through what the Iowas bring to the table. There are four Iowa-class battleships, Iowa, Missouri (where the Japanese surrender was signed Sept. 2, 1945), New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Built during World War 2, each ship displaces approximately 58,000 tons fully loaded, or just over half a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and seven times that of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the backbone of the modern USN. Each ship is capable of speeds of 32 knots at full tilt, with a range of nearly 15,000 miles at 15 knots. All four ships served in WW2, escorting carrier task groups and bombarding Japanese positions. They continued to serve into the Korean War, providing heavy bombardment support for UN forces engaging North Korean and Chinese forces. All were decommissioned in the early 1960’s, with New Jersey recommissioned for two tours off North Vietnam, destroying Viet Cong positions with incredible efficiency, before being returned to mothballs. All four sisters were reactivated as part of Ronald Reagan’s 600-Ship Navy, updated with (then) state of the art radars, communications, anti-ship missiles and Phalanx Close-In Weapons Systems (CIWS) for point defense.
Should enemy missile fire, the primary weapon in modern ship to ship combat, penetrate the advanced close-in defenses, then there’s the fact that these are battleships, and they are armored like tanks. Their belt armor, the plate along their vertical sides, is twelve inches of solid steel. Bulkheads dividing the hull are over eleven inches thick, with turret and barbette (the central shaft from the turret to the magazine deep inside the ship) armor ranging from eleven inches thick to over nineteen on the forward face of the turret. After all of that, deck armor is seven and a half inches thick, protecting the ship’s vulnerable insides from plunging fire. For ranges over 18,000 yards, Iowa-class battleships’ critical areas, engineering, magazines, main battery, etc., were all but immune to fire from previous generation 16″/45 caliber naval guns. Further armor protected critical areas of the superstructure, including the conn, and the fire control centers. Suffice it to say that should an Iowa-class ship take a hit, or even multiple hits, from modern anti-ship missiles, it is highly likely the ship could shrug them off and continue to steam/fight.
The Iowa‘s have even more utility, built to lead and coordinate fleets of battleships and smaller ships in combat. All four ships have expansive sections for flag officers and their staffs, as well as prodigious command and control suites to coordinate entire battle groups, a load carried in the modern day by aircraft carriers, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and the aging Blue Ridge-class command ships, each now the flag of the 6th and 7th Fleets, Naval Forces Europe and Naval Forces Pacific respectively. Recommissioned Iowa-class battleships could be forward-deployed as flagships of important fleets, such as 6th and 7th, providing visible power and a fighting flagship for each fleet beyond the aircraft carriers rotated through on patrol. Such visible American naval power could be invaluable for applying pressure in crises where an aircraft carrier is unavailable or further force is called for.
And then there’s the main armament. Nine sixteen-inch fifty caliber naval rifles, each capable of lofting a shell weighing 2700 lbs to a range of 24 miles at a muzzle velocity of over 2600 feet per second, mounted in three groups of three, two forward of the superstructure and one aft. These shells, fired solely or in groups of up to all nine, dealt precision death to any foe unwary enough to enter the range of the main battery. While Mr. Trump’s comment is not technically correct, the largest guns ever fitted to a warship were the nine eighteen inch guns fitted to the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi, these naval rifles are the largest and most powerful guns ever fielded by the United States Navy. To be perfectly frank, we have no equivalent of these guns today, either in mass or destructive power, and only recently matched in accuracy thanks to advances in precision guided munitions technologies. (If you want something really cool, look up Iowa‘s mechanical fire control computers, which could multiply and divide.) All four of these ships, two in particular, Iowa and Wisconsin, have been stored in a state such that in a national emergency requiring their services, the ships can be reactivated and recommissioned into the fleet, with stores on shore for needed parts, like gun barrels and shells for the main battery.
There is a reason for ready storage, and not in commission though, several actually. Each turret of three guns required a crew of over 80 men each. An Iowa-class battleship as a whole requires a crew of 1500, 1200 if we in a modern refit removed the six twin five-inch gun mounts in the secondary battery. For a sense of scale, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer only requires a crew of about 300, and the brand-new Zumwalt-class requires 140. It should be noted that the same Congressional fire support mandate that keeps the Iowa‘s in the condition they are is now, in the eyes of the USN, filled by the Zumwalt and her two sisters. The fact of the matter is that the Iowa‘s are expensive to run, requiring thousands of specialty parts from suppliers who longer exist, and oceans of fuel oil to pace modern warships at steam. Powerful or not, they are old, maintenance-heavy, and just generally a drain on the Navy’s limited resources, particularly right now as it faces a projected ship shortfall of approximately 10%.
Now I can hear a lot of you readers right now. Money should be no object to national defense! you cry. Whether or not you are right is a debate I will leave for another time, but there is an even more compelling reason the Iowa‘s should not be recommissioned: they are useless in a stand up fight. Twenty-four miles is a long way for an unaided cannon shell. It’s a relatively short range for a powered one, known as an extended range guided munition, or ERGM, and it’s knife-fighting range for a surface-to-surface missile-armed warship, which I might add make up almost the entirety of warships on the world’s oceans today.
When refitted in the 1980’s, I mentioned the Iowa‘s were given sixteen Harpoon missiles in four four-shot launchers, and thirty-two Tomahawk cruise missiles, in eight box launchers. That sounds like a lot, until you remember a Zumwalt-class destroyer can carry up to eighty of either missile, or other ordnance as appropriate for the mission, while an Arleigh Burke can carry ninety-six missiles. Most modern destroyers and cruisers carry equivalent armament, most with superior range to the 1970’s era Harpoon.
After Iowa‘s ineffectual (relatively speaking) offensive capabilities, one must also consider that the ship, for all intents and purposes, has no defenses. The six remaining dual purpose five-inch turrets are designed to engage WW2 era aircraft, a far cry from the speed and agility of modern anti-ship missiles. The four Phalanx turrets can all individually engage incoming missiles… at ranges under four thousand yards. At such ranges there are literally only a handful of seconds to intervene. (CIWS’ unofficial translation is Crikey* It Won’t Shoot!) None of the Iowa‘s are currently fitted with either surface-to-air missiles to knock down incoming missiles and aircraft or the radars required to aim and guide such weapons. Due to the requirements of the USN’s current Standard Missile (capitalization theirs), it would be extremely difficult and expensive to retrofit such electronics and weaponry to the Iowa‘s, complete overhaul or not. From a defensive standpoint, the battleships are little better than particularly hard to kill targets, without contributing much of anything to battle group air defense.
So refit them, you say. Give them all the latest whiz-bang gadgets and gizmos! While that is a fine idea in theory, it comes with the preceding issue: Money. Refits, especially ones comprehensive enough to provide the Iowa class with an armament to be proud of in the 21st century will cost billions, billions the Navy doesn’t have and needs elsewhere anyway. In order to be effective combatants in a modern naval battle, the Iowa‘s would need drastic overhauls and upgrades. New offensive and defensive missiles and electronics would be paramount, along with programs to develop new ERGMs specifically for the 16″/50 rifles to bring the main battery back to relevance. Such refits will cost dearly in time and treasure, of which we have neither aplenty.
Are there possible scenarios where a large, powerful surface combatant, potentially operating in a Surface Action Group (SAG) independent of aircraft carrier task forces could be very useful to the United States Navy? Certainly. I would argue there are so many that we ought to commission a class of warship, a large surface action combatant to lead Surface Action Groups to such instances, if only to reduce the workload on the over-worked carrier fleet. A ship along the lines of the Soviet Kirov-class battlecruiser could be quite handy, rebuilt to suit American naval doctrine. There are two rubs there however: the USN doesn’t have the resources to furnish escorts for such SAGs, nor the resources to sink into the heavy combatants leading the groups, be they refitted Iowa‘s, or a more modern design.
Were I in charge of the defense budget, rest assured readers finding the money to support SAGs would not be my highest priority. We have other issues in line ahead of such ideas/debates about the nature of naval power projection and the future of surface combatants (and believe me, it’s a hell of a debate). However, in a world where the USN has that funding, those spare ships to provide escort to a modern battleship or battlecruiser, I genuinely believe that ship should not be an Iowa-class battleship, refit or not. The ships are old, out of date, and have done their due diligence. Let the old warriors rest in peace, while creating a new, capable, modern and worthy successor to their tradition to carry it forward into the 21st century. Such a ship could mount heavy naval rifles, or railguns, or lasers, or advanced missile systems, alongside modern ceramic armor and efficient, powerful propulsion systems. Such a ship could proudly carry on the legacy of the Iowa-class, without the expense and the challenge of teaching seventy-year old dogs new tricks.
The Iowa‘s were fantastic warships in their day, formidable expressions of American naval might. A modern attempt to reactivate them however is, in my humble opinion, primarily an exercise in showmanship and nostalgia, draining the USN of resources badly needed elsewhere in the fleet. (Our carrier fleet springs to mind.) It is an exercise of and for the past, without the forward thinking that will be required of the United States and her Navy, both in the immediate future and the rest of the century ahead. Leave the Iowa‘s alone, let them have their blissful retirement. If you want to truly propose a shakeup to the way America approaches her armed forces, why not suggest funding the the Navy and the other services to their requested levels? It might get you a bit farther in the long run than antique ships from a previous war.
For those seeking to watch Mr. Trump’s speech, here is the full speech on Youtube from PBS News Hour. The relevant comment appears around 2:43. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCZGCR0KCIw
For those wishing to learn more about the Iowa‘s themselves, all four of the sisters maintain websites with information, as well as accurate Wikipedia profiles easily reachable via Google. For those curious about some ideas for updating the Iowas, here is a link to many of the more common, if not necessarily sensible proposals: http://www.g2mil.com/battleships.htm
As always, thanks for reading and feel free to comment below. – GP