Of all the mean-looking, don't-mess-with-me hardware ever devised there's nothing quite like a battleship.

Consider the battleship U.S.S. Iowa. It is more than one and a half times longer than the Washington Monument is high. It weighs nearly as much as the RCA Building in New York and has a top speed of 38 miles an hour. The Iowa's nine 16-inch guns, with their 68-foot-long barrels, fire shells that weight as much as Volkswagens. The explosive shells, with a range of 23 miles, can penetrate 60 feet of rock, blast craters more than 400 feet in diameter and cut tanks to pieces with jagged 20-pound chunks of shrapnel that whirl at three times the speed of sound.

The Iowa, along with its three sister ships, is the most heavily armored U.S. warship ever built -- a sea-going tank of Brobdingnagian dimensions. It was built to take whatever punishment it can dish out, including direct hits from 16-inch shells. The solid steel walls of the command turret on the ship's bridge are 17.2 inches thick.The door to the captain's room in the turret looks as if it were taken from a bank vault. Japanese kamikaze planes, loaded with gasoline and explosives, have smashed against the 6-inch armored deck of Iowa-class ships to inflict nothing more than patches of scorched paint. A direct hit from a Soviet cruise missile armed with conventional (non-nuclear) explosives would not sink or seriously incapacitate the Iowa, claims the Navy.

The last man in the world to command a battleship at war -- the Iowa's sister ship, the U.S.S. New Jersey, in Vietnam -- says the overwhelmingly brutish presence of the big ships cannot be overestimated.

Retired rear admiral Edward J. Snyder: "If you are a Buddhist and someone trains a battleship's 16-inch guns on you, you say, 'Where do I sign up to be a Christian, boss?'"

Not everyone, of course, is impressed by the saber-rattling statistics and intimidating appearance of battleships. The big ships have been condemned as outdated tubs that were never that useful even for the long-ago wars they were built to fight. No one says battleships don't look mean, but a rancorous debate has emerged over the value of looking fierce in a nuclear age.

With Ronald Reagan in Washington, the U.S. Navy has a sympathetic ear for its claims that the American fleet is perilously small. Navy officials, after 10 years of coping with declining budgets, now feel free to sound the alarms publicly: "For the first time in anyone's recollection, the U.S. Navy is unable fully to meet its peacetime commitments," Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, chief of naval operations, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February. The admiral further warned: "Your country is overexposed and underinsured. Our margin of comfort is totally gone."

The solution long advocated by the Navy is more ships, more guns, more missiles. The Navy wants to increase its fleet from 456 to 600 ships. It wants to increase the number of task forces (clusters of fighting ships now built around aircraft carriers) that can out-gun the Soviet Navy in the North Atlantic, Eastern Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Far East and the Pacific. The Navy has 12 of these task forces now and it wants as many as 20 as soon as possible. But it takes time and big money (more than $2 billion each) to build more aircraft carriers. So, the Navy has come up with what it says is the best possible way to quickly restore firepower to the United States -- a battleship renaissance.

As part of the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history, the Reagan administration has proposed a plan that would take four 38-year-old battleships out of mothballs, deck them out with the latest in missiles and send them to sea as fearsome centerpieces for naval task forces that presumably will restore America's margin of comfort.

"The objective of looking to a battleship is to find a way to actually improve the total offensive strength and power of the Navy and to do it as inexpensively as possible," says Hayward. Long-range missiles on board the battleships can be used much like carrier-based planes to knock out onshore power stations, fuel storage centers and shipyards.

The reactivation of the battleships is part of a big stick U.S. buildup to show the Soviets that the United States will not tolerate aggression on the world's oceans, says Hayward. London's International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that the Soviet Navy has 289 major surface ships to 187 for the United States. In the Pacific, Hayward says Soviet ships outnumber U.S. ships by nearly three to one and the Soviet Navy is "easily" capable of restricting the sea commerce of Japan, Korea and the Philippines.

"The Soviet Navy's got to know that if they come out and try to interfere with our principal allies, our principal interests, that they are not going to get a free lunch," says Hayward.

Congress appears as enchanted with the rebirth of the battleship as it does with most of Reagan's unprecedented plan to increase defense spending by $181 billion over the next five years -- an amount three times larger (in U.S. dollars) than defense budget increases during the Vietnam War years of 1965 to 1970. Both Senate and House armed services committees enthusiastically support the battleship revival. The armored behemoths appeal to Congress, in large measure, because they look so menacing, says Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery, a Mississippi Democrat and battleship advocate on the House Armed Services Committee.

"I have been concerned that our warships don't have enough visible guns to show everybody that they are warships," says Montgomery. "Everything that looks warlike on the Soviet ships, you can see it. They have missiles and rockets and when they sail into these ports around the world, you can see them. rRight now, our ships don't look that warlike. But a battleship makes a striking, strong appearance when it goes into the different ports."

Retired rear admiral F. Julian Becton, the last skipper of the Iowa, recalls that his ship had a knack for making natives friendly.

"In February of 1957, we sailed to Sicily with the ship in full dress -- rainbow flags from bow to stern. The [American] consular officials there in Palermo said dealings with the civilians had been rather cool, but that since our arrival they'd warmed up considerably," says Becton, 73, who was the Iowa's skipper for 15 months and who put her in mothballs in 1958. "Just to see a ship like this off a city gives the impression that we mean business."

Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), one of the Senate's most outspoken battleship critics, concedes there's no way to stop Congress from spending billions on the ships. The Navy now estimates it will cost nearly a half-billion dollars each for the first phase of reactivating and arming the Iowa, the New Jersey, the Missouri and the Wisconsin. The final cost of fixing up and arming the ships will 400 cruise missiles will be nearly $1.4 billion each.

"This is all part of Reagan's show-and-tell approach to defense thinking," says Exon."But I'm just not impressed with this looking tough. I don't think the Russians scare that easy. You might scare the native in New Guinea, but they aren't about to bother us anyhow."

The idea of a heavily armed, high-speed, virtually invincible ship has seduced military strategists, politicians, the press and particularly admirals since 1905 when King Edward VII of Great Britain smashed a bottle of Australian wine against the hull of the world's first great battleship -- H.M.S. Dreadnought.

The generic name for all the 177 battleships that followed has been "dreadnought," a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "dreading nothing, fearless." Politicians seeking to justify the cost of battleships often spoke of them as unsinkable, practically omnipotent. The ships were christened with chest-thumping names like "Audacious," "Thunderer" and "Conquerer."

"The strength of the Navy rests primarily upon its battleships," wrote President Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to Congress in 1907. For nearly 35 years, battleships were the symbol of national strength and one of the largest drains on the defense budgets of Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. A nation's total battleship count once determined the world balance of military power just as strategic nuclear weapons do now. Under the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1921, a sort of SALT treaty for the flapper era, major military nations agreed to limit the number of battleships they would build and, hopefully, achieve a balance of terror.

Through all the years that battleships were ballyhooed as the ultimate weapon, there were always a few gadflies who said it was just plain stupid to believe in the invincibility of oversized iron ships. Two months before the outbreak of World War I, one of these gadflies wrote a letter to The Times of London that outraged admirals around the world:

"Battleships are no use either for defensive or offensive purposes.Submarines and aeroplanes have entirely revolutionised naval warfar," wrote Percy Scott, a retired admiral of the British Royal Navy.

Critics like Scott and Billy Mitchell, the American who in 1921 demonstrated (after repeated attempts) that bombs dropped from airplanes can sink a battleship, overstated the weaknesses of battleships. They were dismissed by most of the military strategists who armed the earth for World Wars I and II. But the gadflies were prescient in saying that battleships would not be the deciding factors in either of the two world wars.

Naval historian Richard Hough writes that during World War I "except for a few bombardments, a few engagements that did not affect the status quo or the roles of the opposing fleets, the big guns [of battleships] never fired." In fact, the main battle fleets of Great Britain and Germany were in each other's sight and range for only one afternoon [at the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea] during four and a half years of war.

In the Second World War, a bigger, faster and more heavily armed fleet of battleships was eclipsed almost immeditely in tactical importance by aircraft carriers. It was quickly apparent that when control of the air was lost, battleships, no matter how heavily armored, weren't much good. Germany's feared Bismarck was crippled by aircraft torpedoes and sunk by torpedoes and shellfire. Britain's Prince of Wales, a battleship designed to withstand attacks by submarines, aircraft and opposing gunships, was sunk at sea by aircraft torpedoes. Aircraft torpedoes and bombs sank the two largest battleships ever built, Japan's Yamato and her sister ship the Musashi, also at sea. Eight mid-size U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor were damaged by aircraft torpedoes and bombs. Two, the Arizona and Oklahoma, were destroyed.

After Pearl Harbor, America's battleships relied on superior air protection and fared better in World War II than the dreadnoughts of any other nation. In a classic War College maneuver at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, six aging American battleships managed to cut in front of a Japanese flotilla and sink six ships, including two battleships. The big guns of the U.S. ships softened Japanese resistance and probably saved the lives of thousands of Marines in amphibious assaults on Pacific islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Their anti-aircraft guns, up to 100 barrels per battleship, insulated aircraft carriers from Japanese bombers. But the so-called "super-dreadnoughts" such as the Iowa and New Jersey were never used in the fleet-to-fleet encounters for which they'd been built.

"For all the countless millions spent on it, for all the sacrifices, the passions, the political manipulations and pressures it occasioned, the battleship was scarcely ever used in combat," writes historian Hough. In his 18-year-old book, somwhat prematurely entitled Death of the Battleship, Hough said the builders of the big ships never succeeded in outdistancing the makers of the high-technology bombs and torpedoes that could sink battleships. In fact, Hough writes that the dread-nought's greatest conflicts were "the bloodless battles of theory it fought against the powers of technology. Technology was always the battleship's uneasy ally, and deadly enemy."

All the countries in the world save one have junked their battleships, turning them into razor blades and office furniture. Only the U.S. Navy has kept the faith.

For more than 20 years, the Navy has held its four best battleships in a sort of suspended antimation. (The New Jersey was awakened for a two-year tour of Vietnam, but quickly put back to bed in 1969.) While snoozing in their heavy layers of 40 percent fish-oil-base battleship gray paint, the four super-dreadnoughts -- the Iowa and Wisconsin in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the Missouri and the New Jersey in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state -- have missed a revolution in military technology.

These Rip Van Winkles of the U.S. fleet are now slated to return to oceans scanned by spy satellites and prowled by Soviet planes and submarines armed with nuclear weapons that can obliterate any ship.

Unlike World War II, when ships were often untraceable in the vastness of the Pacific, the oceans of the world are no longer a safe place to hide. The Soviet Union, using a number of tracking methods, has a rough idea where all the surface combat ships of the U.S. Navy are at any time. With ocean surveillance satellites, which use radar and listening devices that detect electronic emissions, the Soviets can locate the precise location of any U.S. ship at sea within a matter of days, says a high-level Pentagon analyst.

Once located, battleships (as well as carriers and all surface ships) face sophisticated nemeses that did not exist when the Navy was putting its faith in bank-vault armor. First among these is the Soviet Backfire bomber, a swing-wing, supersonic bomber that fires cruise missiles. Air-launched cruise missiles -- small, pilotless jets that can fly just above water to evade radar -- have a range of 1,200 miles and can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads. Harold Brown, the former secretary of defense, said before leaving office in Jauary that the Navy has no "adequate defense" against massed Backfire bomber and missile attack. The Soviets have approximately 400 of the bombers and are building about 30 a year, according to U.S. estimates.

The Russians also have Oscar. Oscar is a titanium alloy nuclear attack submarine that can dive deeper and go faster (more than 40 miles an hour) than any U.S. attack submarine. It is equipped with cruise missiles that enable Oscar to sink a battleship or carrier from as far away as 200 miles. Before Oscar, Soviet attack submarines had to move within 20 miles of their target to be lethal. The Navy says that Oscar, which it discovered with spy satellites a year ago, increases the vulnerability of surface ships by 10 times. It is not clear how many Oscars the Soviets plan to build.

The Soviet's anti-ship technology and its obvious threat to the "unsinkable" ships about to be taken out of mothballs has rekindled the bloodless battles of battleship theory that were first heard before World War I.

"I have never understood why it is a good idea to spend money to bring old ships out of mothballs. I can imagine the Russians will just be scared to death when they see these old babies," says Sen. Exon. "All the Russians will do is target a missile or two at them and that will be the end of that."

"If that argument made any sense, hell, nobody is going to cast off from any pier with any ship," counters retired Navy captain Robert Peniston, 58, who briefly commanded the New Jersey before it was decommissioned in 1969. "It is true the Russians can find you in a battleship, but they cannot sink you without unacceptable losses."

The U.S.S. Iowa appears to be in surprisingly good shape in its fresh-water mooring on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia as it waits for the half billion-dollar facelift the Navy says will make it both seaworthy and a "good, survivable, fast platform" for cruise missiles.

Nine dehumidifiers that have been running continuously for more than 23 years appear to have prevented rust inside the ship. The brass handles on the triggers of the 16-inch guns have a dull sheen, as do the thousands of brass parts in the eight different locations on the Iowa where the guns can be fired. The ship was designed with "tremendous redundancy" so that it could take severe punishment and keep fighting.

Outside, the fish-oil paint has prevented rust and a series of 36 cathodic cables that hang in the water around the ship emitting electrical charges have prevented metallic corrosion.

Inside the steel corridors of the Iowa, a labyrinth of narrow passageways closed off at nearly every turn by 1,857 doors, there is ghostly quiet. The only sound is the whirring of the dehumidifiers. Stale, continuously recycled air moves through every compartment in the ship, including the famous bathroom where President Franklin D. Roosevelt bathed in what was then the Navy's only shipboard bathtub. The Iowa took Roosevelt to and from North Africa for a war conference in 1943.

The Navy denies charges (made in letters to the editor of The Washington Post and in rumors circulating on Capitol Hill) that the Iowa was cannibalized in the late 1960s to provide parts for the New Jersey. It says the Iowa, its guns, its engines and boilers are in good condition and that the ship, which has been in active service for only 12 years since it was launched in 1942, should hold up for about 15 to 20 years at sea. (The Navy says there is no truth to similar rumors that the Wisconsin was seriously damaged by a fire while in mothballs or that the Missouri has extensive hull damage that forces it to cruise at half-speed.)

"The machinery in these ships runs like a jeweled watch," says Peniston, a battleship enthusiast who says his brief command of the New Jersey in 1969 was the "most euphoric moment of my naval career."

The harshest critics of battleships admit there isn't any way the U.S. could build an armored ship at a price even close to the cost of cleaning up the old ones. In fact, there is widespread doubt that any U.S. shipbuilder has the machine capacity or craft to build an Iowa-class ship for any price. The original cost of the Iowa, built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was $110 million.

The 16-inch guns of the Iowa-class ships are aimed by means of an electromechanical computer system that represented the height of World War II gunnery technology. The computer takes into account the pitch, roll and forward speed of the ship as well as wind velocity and rotation of the earth. The Navy claims the aiming system for the big guns, although bulky by contemporary computer standards, can deliver 6-foot-long, 16-inch diameter, 2,700-pound shells within 60 feet of their intended targets at a range of 23 miles. In actual use in Vietnam, the big guns of the New Jersey had an average error of nearly 520 feet for the first round of firing, according to Adm. Snyder, who commanded the ship there when it fired 6,200 rounds.

To make the ships seaworthy again, a process expected to take one year and nine months for the New Jersey and two and a half for the other three battleships, power plants will be overhauled and converted from burning black oil to a lighter distillate fuel. Rotted wiring and outmoded communications equipment will be replaced. Cramped living quarters for the 2,600 sailors who once manned the Iowa (where as many as 21 sailors slept in "pipe racks" stacked six tiers high in compartments about half the size of a typical Holiday Inn room) will be air conditioned and refurnished. There will be fewer bunks because the Navy plans to sail the ships with a crew of 1,500.

The Navy, despite a chronic shortage of 20,000 experienced petty officers, claims it can find enough sailors to man the four ships. "The battleships are relatively low-skill intensive," Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. told U.S. News & World Report recently. "Our manpower problems today really involve the high-skill nuclear submariners, engineers, that sort of thing . . . We'll have no problem manning battleships."

Once they are spruced up and sent to sea, the battleships will be armed initially with 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles (which cost $2.7 million each and have a range of 1,500 miles) and 16 Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles (which cost $887,000 each and have a range of 70 miles).

Adm. Hayward says the Navy plans a two-stage overhaul of the big ships. In the second stage, vertical missile launchers will be installed to allow the battleships to carry up to 400 crusie missiles (worth more than $1 billion). Plans are also pending to place V/STOL fighter planes, which can take off and land much like helicopters, on the ship's stern.

The Navy's $500 million estimate for the initial conversion and arming of the battleships is a bargain compared to the cost of building even a new battle cruiser (estimated at $2 billion). But Derek Vander Schaaf, a staff member of the defense subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee, says the cost of reactivating the ships may be much higher. The Navy has thus far come up with "Class F" cost estimates, which can be off by 40 percent, Vander Schaaf says.

With their missiles and incomparable 16-inch guns, the ships seem made to order for the Reagan administration's plan to beef up the military for the possibility of an extended conventional war with the Soviets. Missiles aboard the battleships can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads.

"In Third World situations, a battleship can form the core of a new kind of battle group," said Navy Secretary Lehman. "Many targets in the Persian Gulf, for example, are well within range of those 16-inch guns alone -- not to mention cruise missiles. You don't have to worry about the lucky shot from, say, a small gunboat or torpedo boat. If you get hit, it won't stop you."

Lehman's battleship pep talk, however, normally does not mention the multibillion dollar complement of ships that the Navy says the dreadnoughts will need for protection against Soviet bombers and submarines. When battleships are in dangerous waters, such as the Persian Gulf, that complement includes one aircraft carrier (about $2 billion), two Aegis antiaircraft cruisers (about $820 million each), two attach submarines ($334 million each) and three destroyers or light cruisers (about $200 million each).

Including the cost of reactivating and arming the Iowa, patrolling the Persian Gulf in a 38-year-old battleship will tie up nearly $5.4 billion in hardware. This is 154 percent of what the Reagan administration expects to save over the next five years with its proposed cuts in the food stamp program.

"When I analyzed the cost and usefullness of the battleship, I concluded it wasn't worth the money," says former secretary of defense Harold Brown. Brown says a battleship can be used for shore bombardment, covering amphibious landings and as a "a very imposing command ship and headquarters with a highly visible presence."

"Presence is important," Brown says, "but you have to decide how much you are willing to pay for this. The worst thing you can have is an imposing image combined with actual vulnerability." Brown says he's not convinced that the Aegis antiaircraft cruisers and other defensive weapon systems can provide sufficient protection for big targets such as carriers and battleships.

"If you have enough money and enough people, bring back battleships is an interesting thing to do," Brown says. He recalls that the plan to reactivate the ships was on a Navy wish list when he was in the Pentagon, but that the cost, vulnerability and limited usefulness of the ship persuaded him that battleships "didn't make it."

There's something about a battleship that chokes up many Navy veterans. They talk about them in reverent tones. Admirals and captains talking battleships sound a lot like fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers reminiscing about the old Ebbets Field. Like an announcement that the Dodgers were headed back to Brooklyn and that Ebbets Field was due to be rebuilt, word that battleships are back has vindicated and delighted naval officers who cursed the day the ships were mothballed.

From a most-bang-for-the-buck standpoint, the Navy's plan to use the big ships as stout platforms for a new era of missile warfare makes considerable sense. But the fevered pitch of the battleship argument -- with admirals harrumphing that it's about time the Navy had some firepower and Navy critics writing impassioned letters to the editor about the lunacy of investing billions in antediluvian buckets of bolts -- indicates that drednoughts have kept their nearly 75-year-old gift for inflaming public opinion.

Navy historian John Rilley, himself a strong proponent of bringing back the battleships, says that no matter how rationally the pro-battleship argument is drawn, a large part of its appeal derives from a nostalgic longing for a simpler world.

"There's a wistful feeling for the days when the ultimate weapon was a 16-inch-shell," Riley says. "Wasn't it wonderful in the days when all you had to worry about were explosives and not nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles?"