The Navy proposes to bring back battleships. There are four in mothballs that have been little used and are in good condition -- Iowa, New Jersy, Wisconsin and Missouri. The Navy plans to modernize these four "Iowa-class" ships for the active fleet, and President Reagan has included money for the first two in his 1981 and 1982 budgets.

Critics, sensing the red meat of another wasteful military scheme, are circling for the kill. They argue that battleships are too old, too vulnerable in a high-technology world and require too many men in an already undermanned Navy. Mostly, they argue that resuscitating the battleships is a futile attempt to resurrect a long-gone past, a plan drawn up by heavily barnacled admirals rising from the primordial ooze.

The critics are wrong. The war-fighting role of the surface Navy is to project power against sea and land targets, while defending itself from sea and air attack. The aircraft carrier is now the principal element of naval power projection, while other ships support and protect the carriers. But the advance of technology will make it possible for the carrier to be supplemented by surface and submarine forces in its power projection role, due mainly to the development of accurate long-range missiles that can be launched from surface ships and submarines and travel up to 1,000 miles to their target, a role heretofore reserved for aircraft.

The battleship, because of its large size and excellent sea-keeping characteristics, has the potential for carrying many more of these long-range missiles than any other ship in the fleet. Rather than being the last stand against modernity by nautical Colonial Blimps, the battleship is returning because the new technology of cruise missles -- technology that bids to revolutionize naval warfare in the closing decades of this century -- opens up a new role for the battleship. Armed with Tomahawk long-range land-attack missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, 16-inch guns and modern air defense weapons, the battleship will be formidable, able to operate either in tandem with cariers or as the major ship in a surface task force. Looking ahead, it could carry vertical-launched aircraft for over-the-horizon targeting. If approved by Congress, the battleship will be a powerful, flexible addition to the fleet and an important source of gunfire and missile support for Marine or Army forces.

There are other, technical reasons for using the battleships rather than simply building new ships.

First, it is less costly. Fitting out a modernized battleship will cost no more and enter the fleet sooner than building a new destroyer, and will provide substantially more offensive capability in the bargain.

Second, the battleships have much unused life. Although built in the 1940's, they have been in service, an average, only 10 years. It is reasonable to expect an additional 5 to 20 years of active life from each ship. Why not, then, make use of a ship we have already in hand?

Third, battleships will be among the least vulnerable ships in the Navy because of their tremendously strong armored hulls (stronger than any ship built today). It is true that surface ships are made more vulnerable by the advances in missile and sensor technology; still, it is illusory to suggest, as some have done, that major warships are easy prey for modern missles and satellite targeting. Locating and tracking a mobile target, such as a battleship, and doing so at great distances, and then destroying it before you are yourself detected and destroyed, is no easy task. It cannot glibly be described as the inevitable result of modern technology. Not yet, at least. Moreover, the modernized battleship has no less an advantage than a prospective enemy in terms of missiles and sensors; who is pursuer, and who pursued, cannot be decided in the abstract.

Manning ships is a problem for the Navy. Finding and keeping sailors in sufficient numbers will command the highest interest of defense and congressional leadership in this decade. But successful manning of the Navy is not impossible. We manned 5,000 ships in the 1940s and 1,000 ships in the 1960s; there is no reason why we can't now man a 600-ship Navy. In 1980, with a new mood in the country, we achieved 100 percent of our recruiting goal, without any sacrifice in quality. Also, since the beginning of this fiscal year, 4,000 more petty officers reenlisted than were expected to reenlist without the congressional pay and benefit improvements -- enough petty officers, that is, to man all four battleships.

The battleships are a near-term part of a long-term plan for rebuilding the Navy. The fleet, which stood at 1,000 ships in 1968, was cut in half during the ensuing decade, and is now smaller in size (though obviously not in capability) than was the fleet before Pearl Harbor. The present fleet is too small for the demands placed on it. One illustration of this point is ship operating tempo: Ships are now operating at a pace 15 percent higher than at the Vietnam peak. This is wearing on both ships and crews. Happily, the Navy is growing again, toward the 600-ship force objective set by President Reagan. Just in the nick of time, too, for while our Navy has been shrinking, our commitments have been growing -- as have the military forces of our principal adversary.

Events of the last two years have reminded Americans once again that our country has broad interests and responsibilities in the world, and like Great Britain and other allies, our future depends on freedom of the seas. The Navy alone is not meant to ensure this freedom -- political, economic and diplomatic leadership are principal tools -- but the Navy has a vital role, and to fufill this role a larger fleet is needed.Battleships made modern will make an improtant contribution to this larger fleet.