The Battle Over Battleships

Robert Novak recently informed us that the battleship debate has once again reared its head. Naval partisans in Congress are attempting, in defiance of the wishes of the Navy itself, to bring back the last two surviving battleships, the Iowa and the Wisconsin, for possible operations in the Persian Gulf. This is a neverending saga — I recall it raging hot and heavy in both the late 60s and the mid—80s. The argument has been identical each time: that nothing afloat provides such a combination of firepower and protection as the battleship.

One suspects that much of the passion comes from people unwilling to see an era die. It's easy to be sympathetic with that position. For a large portion of the 20th century, the battlewagons were the Kings of the Seas, unmatched for firepower, armor, and sheer elegance. Certain individual battleships — the Bismarck, the Yamato, the Arizona, and the Missouri — have entered into legend in a way that ships of no other class can match. Truly, something has vanished now that the battleship sails no more.

But the weight of the argument lies with the other side. Iowa—class battleships, requiring crews of over 1,500 sailors, are extremely hard to man. They utilize obsolete technology that is difficult, and often impossible, to replace or repair (not to mention problems in training info—age sailors to operate it), and they are expensive, even by modern standards.

The single unanswerable contention lies in those big 16—inch guns, unequaled by any weapon in any fleet on any ocean. (The naval standard these days is the puny 5—inch gun). The Mk. 7 gun is capable of firing a 1,900 lb. round over 25 miles — a hammer that would make any anvil ring. That's a hard argument to beat — it's a shame that we can't take the guns and leave the old hulls, with all their associated problems, to their honored rest.

And that may well be possible, through a revival of a nearly forgotten naval configuration — the big—gun monitor.

Monitors are well—known to Americans thanks the legendary 1862 duel between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads. (North of the Line, the Virginia is usually referred to as the Merrimack, its original name as a U.S. frigate, for perfectly understandable patriotic reasons, I'm sure.) It's not so widely known that the type went on to a long and varied career throughout the Civil War and beyond. Monitors were still in use by the U.S. Navy as late as the Vietnam War — the low—silhouette, armored—turret configuration was perfect for the riverine warfare of the Mekong Delta.

The type went through many design changes, with multiple turrets, different hulls, and so on (the Vietnam—era version would have been unrecognizable to a Civil War sailor). One of these variants was the big—gun monitor, an oversize version fitted with a turret bearing one or two 8 to 12 inch guns. Its mission, exactly as suggested for the battleships, was troop support. The Royal Navy commissioned several, one of which was used in the Baltic in 1919 to support White Russian troops fighting the Bolsheviks.

So there's our answer. Remove the guns from the Iowa and Wisconsin, and place them on new hulls, configured as monitors for the mission of infantry support. The old ships can go on to become museum pieces, while their offspring, perhaps given related names, carry on the tradition.

The new hulls would be stealthy, cut close to the waterline, and fitted with modern fire control and command and communciations gear. A cut—down version of the DD(X) hull is a possibility. Off—the—shelf hardware could be adapted to keep costs low. The guns from the Iowa and Wisconsin would serve to equip five monitors (remember that one of the Iowa's turrets is inoperable). This should be enough, though if more vessels are required, guns from other mothballed battleships may well be available. The guns would placed in new, conformable turrets to match the stealth configuration.

A minimal crew — enough to keep things shipshape and support the guns — is all that would be necessary. Apart from the guns themselves, new equipment would obviate any training problems. Monitors would be single—mission ships. All other naval tasks — antiaircraft, antisubmarine, and so forth — would be covered by accompanying frigates and destroyers. The monitors would have one task — to use those big guns against troop concentrations, installations, roads and bridges, and any other shoreline or inland target.

The big—gun monitor would fit in well with the current naval philosophy of littoral warfare, along with satisfying the Navy's yearning for shiny new hulls. It appears to meet all the requirements of the battleship crowd — except one. The monitor will never be a capital ship. It will lack the elegance and impact of the battleship. The squat, dumpy silhouette of the monitor will never embody the symbolic power of the Iowa or Wisconsin.

But however important symbolism may be to war and to warriors, it has to bow to the urgent realities of changing time and conditions. The French armored knights at Agincourt could testify to that. As could the crewmen of the Bismarck or the Arizona.

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker, and former editor of the International Military Encyclopedia.

Robert Novak recently informed us that the battleship debate has once again reared its head. Naval partisans in Congress are attempting, in defiance of the wishes of the Navy itself, to bring back the last two surviving battleships, the Iowa and the Wisconsin, for possible operations in the Persian Gulf. This is a neverending saga — I recall it raging hot and heavy in both the late 60s and the mid—80s. The argument has been identical each time: that nothing afloat provides such a combination of firepower and protection as the battleship.

One suspects that much of the passion comes from people unwilling to see an era die. It's easy to be sympathetic with that position. For a large portion of the 20th century, the battlewagons were the Kings of the Seas, unmatched for firepower, armor, and sheer elegance. Certain individual battleships — the Bismarck, the Yamato, the Arizona, and the Missouri — have entered into legend in a way that ships of no other class can match. Truly, something has vanished now that the battleship sails no more.

But the weight of the argument lies with the other side. Iowa—class battleships, requiring crews of over 1,500 sailors, are extremely hard to man. They utilize obsolete technology that is difficult, and often impossible, to replace or repair (not to mention problems in training info—age sailors to operate it), and they are expensive, even by modern standards.

The single unanswerable contention lies in those big 16—inch guns, unequaled by any weapon in any fleet on any ocean. (The naval standard these days is the puny 5—inch gun). The Mk. 7 gun is capable of firing a 1,900 lb. round over 25 miles — a hammer that would make any anvil ring. That's a hard argument to beat — it's a shame that we can't take the guns and leave the old hulls, with all their associated problems, to their honored rest.

And that may well be possible, through a revival of a nearly forgotten naval configuration — the big—gun monitor.

Monitors are well—known to Americans thanks the legendary 1862 duel between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads. (North of the Line, the Virginia is usually referred to as the Merrimack, its original name as a U.S. frigate, for perfectly understandable patriotic reasons, I'm sure.) It's not so widely known that the type went on to a long and varied career throughout the Civil War and beyond. Monitors were still in use by the U.S. Navy as late as the Vietnam War — the low—silhouette, armored—turret configuration was perfect for the riverine warfare of the Mekong Delta.

The type went through many design changes, with multiple turrets, different hulls, and so on (the Vietnam—era version would have been unrecognizable to a Civil War sailor). One of these variants was the big—gun monitor, an oversize version fitted with a turret bearing one or two 8 to 12 inch guns. Its mission, exactly as suggested for the battleships, was troop support. The Royal Navy commissioned several, one of which was used in the Baltic in 1919 to support White Russian troops fighting the Bolsheviks.

So there's our answer. Remove the guns from the Iowa and Wisconsin, and place them on new hulls, configured as monitors for the mission of infantry support. The old ships can go on to become museum pieces, while their offspring, perhaps given related names, carry on the tradition.

The new hulls would be stealthy, cut close to the waterline, and fitted with modern fire control and command and communciations gear. A cut—down version of the DD(X) hull is a possibility. Off—the—shelf hardware could be adapted to keep costs low. The guns from the Iowa and Wisconsin would serve to equip five monitors (remember that one of the Iowa's turrets is inoperable). This should be enough, though if more vessels are required, guns from other mothballed battleships may well be available. The guns would placed in new, conformable turrets to match the stealth configuration.

A minimal crew — enough to keep things shipshape and support the guns — is all that would be necessary. Apart from the guns themselves, new equipment would obviate any training problems. Monitors would be single—mission ships. All other naval tasks — antiaircraft, antisubmarine, and so forth — would be covered by accompanying frigates and destroyers. The monitors would have one task — to use those big guns against troop concentrations, installations, roads and bridges, and any other shoreline or inland target.

The big—gun monitor would fit in well with the current naval philosophy of littoral warfare, along with satisfying the Navy's yearning for shiny new hulls. It appears to meet all the requirements of the battleship crowd — except one. The monitor will never be a capital ship. It will lack the elegance and impact of the battleship. The squat, dumpy silhouette of the monitor will never embody the symbolic power of the Iowa or Wisconsin.

But however important symbolism may be to war and to warriors, it has to bow to the urgent realities of changing time and conditions. The French armored knights at Agincourt could testify to that. As could the crewmen of the Bismarck or the Arizona.

J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor to American Thinker, and former editor of the International Military Encyclopedia.