Will The Iowa-Class Battleships Be Reactivated?

Will The Iowa-Class Battleships Be Reactivated?

Battleships
Iowa at the head of Battle Group Alpha, centered around the aircraft carrier Midway. With escorts and supply ships, in 1987

The Iowa class battleships consisted of four ships:

USS Iowa (BB-61), USS New Jersey (BB-62), USS Missouri (BB-63), and USS Wisconsin (BB-64).

The Iowa class was designed in response to the growing threat of Japan and the need for a fast battleship that could keep pace with the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet. The ships were built at the New York Navy Yard and the Philadelphia Navy Yard. With construction beginning in 1940 and all four ships commissioned by 1943.

The Iowa class was designed to be the fastest battleships in the world, with a top speed of 33 knots (61 km/h). They were also heavily armed!
Crewmen recover an RQ-2 Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle aboard Iowa

The Iowa class saw action in World War II, with the USS Iowa and USS New Jersey participating in the Pacific Theater and the USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin participating in the European Theater. All four ships became involved in the Battle of the Philippines and the Battle of Okinawa. And the USS Missouri was the site of the Japanese surrender in 1945.

A view of the Mark 37 gunfire control system with Mark 25 radar, left, the Mark 38 gunfire director with Mark 13 radar, and a QE-8L satellite communications antenna, right, aboard the battleship USS IOWA (BB 61).

After the war, the Iowa class became decommissioned and placed in reserve.

USS Iowa fires a full broadside of nine 16-inch and six 5-inch guns during a gunnery exercise
However, 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.

Armored Box Launcher unit for Tomahawk

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 you can still visit the 4 battleships as museums. 

The four Iowa-class ships operating as Battleship Division 2 off the Virginia Capes in 1954; from front to back is IowaWisconsinMissouri and New Jersey

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

3 of the Iowa’s together

Queen Elizabeth Class Battleships

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:

“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.”

Missouri fires 16 in guns at Chong Jin, Korea, 21 October 1950

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.“

We also asked the Naval mind CAPT Anthony Cowden, USN (Ret.), co-author of “Fighting the Fleet: Operational Art and Modern Fleet Combat”

“I am a big fan of the IOWA-class battleships, but at the end of the day I agree with my friend Jeff Kline on this one: there is just better use for the personnel and resources that each one of these ships would require to re-activate it.”

New Jersey fires a nine gun salvo of 16-inch shells into an enemy troop concentration near Kaesong, Korea

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

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 became “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”.

The hull of Kentucky is floated out of drydock to allow it to be used for repairs to Missouri

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!

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? 

Iowa fires her 16-inch armament at coastal positions during her 1952 Korean deployment

How good was the USS Iowa at AA Engagements?

USS Iowa’s Curator David Way on her History

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.  

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

I worry that defense spending will become 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”

The Iowa class battleships were an important part of U.S. naval history and played a significant role in World War II. Their advanced design and powerful armament made them a formidable force on the battlefield, and their speed and endurance allowed them to keep pace with the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet. These ships remain an important part of the U.S. Navy’s legacy and became remembered for their service and sacrifice.

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New Jersey bombarding positions off South Vietnam during the latter part of her 1968–69 WESTPAC cruise

Will The Iowa-Class Battleships Be Reactivated?

Battleships