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Can the Iowa-class battleships be reactivated?

Should the Iowa-class battleships be upgraded to guided missile battleships? Can the Iowa class floating fortress be reactivated?

New Jersey fires all main guns, December 1986

Can the Iowa-class battleships be reactivated? The U.S. Navy retained the four Iowa-class battleships long after other nations abandoned their heavy fleets in favor of rapid aircraft carriers and discrete submarines. 

All four Iowa-class battleships received modernization enhancements, upon their eventual reactivation at the direction of the United States Congress in 1981. Furthermore, armed with missiles during the 1980s, the battleships were key members of the 600-ship Navy initiative. They received modern weapons including:

Eight new armored box launchers for Tomahawk cruise missiles and four quadruple canister launchers for 16 anti-ship Harpoon Missiles.

3 of the Iowa’s together

During the Iraq War, the ships were highly effective in shelling the Iraqi Army with impressive accuracy. Of course, they were nowhere near the striking range of a carrier’s air fleet or long-range missiles.

Today the 4 battleships are museums. 

New Jersey opening fire upon North Korean targets near the 38th parallel.

The USS Iowa in Los Angeles, the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, the USS New Jersey in Philadelphia & the USS Missouri in Hawaii.

Queen Elizabeth Class Battleships

030902-N-3228G-003 Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Sept. 2, 2003) — Former crewmembers of the Battleship Missouri (BB 63) pose for photos shortly after the Anniversary of the End of World War II ceremony, held aboard the famous ship. More than 100 former Missouri crewmembers were present at the ceremony, hosted by the Missouri Memorial Association. The ceremony marked 58 years since General Douglas MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, along with other U.S. and Allied officers, accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, ending World War II on the deck of the Battleship Missouri.

None of these ships have turned their engines on since 1992. Rather, they receive electrical power from the mainland. 

We spoke with The Naval Postgraduate School’s Professor of Practice & former Deputy Director of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet Jeff Kline on the issue. Professor Kline sees the issue from an efficiency standpoint:

Insignia of the United States Sixth Fleet, 1970.

“There is little doubt the Iowa class battleships are impressive war machines and are designed with more ‘staying power’ than any other in naval history. However, in today’s age of robotics warfare, if I had the choice of employing the 1500 sailors required to man an Iowa or to man 100 missile boats. I’d buy the boats. It is no longer about the ships. But about the missiles and the resilience of the whole fleet to deliver them.”

We also posed the question to the USS New Jersey’s curator Ryan Szimanski who added:

“The Iowa-class battleships still have life left in them but their age and the manufacture dates of the equipment on board make them a maintenance and manpower nightmare. Nothing is automated and sailors would have to be completely retrained on the ship’s older style equipment. If you think about changing all of that over to more modern stuff why spend the money on an old ship when you could buy a new one.“

USS New Jersey’s Curator Ryan Szimanski on her history!

all four Iowa class battleships

But how much life is left in these ships? Especially with state of the art missile technology replacing these primitive cannons .

When you look at the B-52, possibly a lot!

We can look at the Air Force where the B-52 represents a major part of their bomber-strike capability. 

The B-52’s design began in 1946 and 76 years later they are still employed for military purposes on a daily basis. 

B-52H aircraft of the 23rd Bomb Squadron landing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

We asked Jeremy Knopp, Technical Director at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, about bringing back the Iowa’s and he felt it was possible, especially when looking at the B-52. Knopp was “astonished to learn that his predecessors in Nondestructive Evaluation research at AFRL were already talking about extending the service life of the B-52 in the mid-1970’s before he was even born”.

While many argue for missiles to replace the 16-inch guns in order for the Navy to present a domineering show of force, the destruction that a 16-inch shell unleashes is still frightening. 

With a range of up to 24 miles, the shells fired weigh from 1,900 to 2,700 lbs with a maximum speed of 2,690 feet per second. Unfortunately, the cost of fuel and 1,500 sailors make any reactivation simply a pipe dream with today’s military technology and efficiency. 

Of course, when you compare the 16 inch gun with a P-700 Granit cruise missile onboard a Russian Kirov-class with 388 miles of range at Mach 2.5+— well that’s that. 

USS Missouri’s Curator Meghan Rathbun on Missouri’s History!

A starboard bow view of the Soviet Kirov Class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser FRUNZE underway. (Soviet Military Power, 1986. published by Defense Intelligence Agency.)

There is also the issue of cost. Replacing the big guns is very expensive. USS Iowa’s Curator Dave Way told us the US Navy would focus on:

“Removing the 16-inch guns and replacing them with missile tubes inside the protection of the thick armored guns’ barbettes.”

But, the problem is that:  

“To remove and replace these ship’s propulsion plants means removing and replacing her armor belt which would be too costly. Each of the Iowas’ armor plates around her hull are bolted into place.”  

But from a Naval tactics standpoint, is there any value for the battleshipin the next few decades? 

How good was the USS Iowa at AA Engagements?

USS Iowa’s Curator David Way on her History

A five-country multinational fleet, during Operation Enduring Freedom in the Oman Sea. In five descending columns, from the top left to the bottom right: MM Maestrale (F 570); FS De Grasse (D 612), USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74); FS Charles De Gaulle (R 91), FS Surcouf (F 711); USS Port Royal (CG-73), HMS Ocean (L 12), USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), HNLMS Van Amstel (F 831); and MM Durand de la Penne (D 560).

We found a retired Submarine Officer and tactical strategist who just wrote to us the following:

“It appeals to me out of pure nostalgia and because it would be an awesome beast of a warship.  That said, it would be a case of too many eggs in one basket.  In a world of finite resources, I’d rather have more subs/destroyers/corvettes than just a few big capital ships.  

Everything needs to revolve around how we’d deter / fight in East and South Asia.  

Can USS Iowa be reactivated?

Chinese Type 094 Nuclear Submarine (Jin-class)

Supporting Marines in littorals, taking key chokepoints, harassing / crippling Chinese forces and supply lines, etc.  

I worry that defense spending will get crimped due to the profligate spending elsewhere in the years ahead. So we need to be smart about getting as much bang for your buck for what we do spend.  

All else equal, I’m going to overweight submarines.  

We retain a large tech advantage here and can cripple China’s Navy and shipping quickly. So long as we have sufficient boats to handle it.  In a shooting war, we probably lose 6-10 subs to the bottom. But that’s the cost to totally gut their Navy and leave them landlocked and cut off from maritime supply”

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Can the Iowa-class battleships be reactivated?

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Can the Iowa-class battleships be reactivated?
Can the Iowa-class battleships be reactivated?