UNLESS WE CAN get some "smart" weapons on our battleships in a hurry, let's put them back into mothballs.
The United States has been through three half-wars recently -- Grenada, Lebanon and Libya -- when accurate fire from a battleship standing offshore would have been the ideal weapon. But instead, the disinterred dinosaurs of John Lehman's Navy were held back while aircraft with young men inside were sent against enemy fire.
With great fanfare and $326 million, the battleship New Jersey was brought out of mothballs for the third time on Dec. 28, 1982. She has sailed all around the world since then looking fearsome. But she has yet to make a significant difference since her rebirth.
Despite this toothless record, the Navy is spending $1.34 billion more to recommission three additional battleships. The Iowa was brought back to life on April 8, 1984. The Missouri and Wisconsin are still being resuscitated.
The New Jersey was not at Grenada, but other Navy gunboats were. They did not fire, presumably because their guns were not considered accurate enough to hit the shore targets without causing collateral damage -- the military's euphemism for killing innocents.
Nonetheless, an admiral there at the time told me he never heard a good reason for not using Navy guns to soften up the beach. Instead, two Marine Cobra helicopters were shot down trying to do that job, killing three Marines.
The New Jersey was floating off Lebanon in 1983 to help protect the Marines President Reagan sent to provide a U.S. "presence," whatever that meant. The New Jersey's nine 16-inch guns looked as if they could blow up anything in Lebanon whenever I flew over the ship during my months in the Mediterranean in 1983 and 1984 on an aircraft carrier. Yet the New Jersey never fired a shot during the Navy's longest day in Lebanon.
That day was Dec. 4, 1983. Reagan had decided to fire back at the Syrians who had shot missiles at two F14 Tomcat reconnaissance planes. The targets included antiaircraft sites and a big white building housing a radar complex. Many of the targets, particularly the big white building, were in easy reach of the New Jersey's big guns. Reagan even expressed interest in using the battleship -- his gunboat for stiff diplomacy.
However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recommended to Reagan that Navy bombers, not the New Jersey's guns, be sent against the anti-aircraft sites in Lebanon -- always a dangerous mission. The chiefs told me they preferred the tit-for-tat formulation: missiles had fired at Navy planes; Navy planes would fire back at the missiles. Also, they feared the New Jersey's 16-inch guns would miss their targets, causing horror scenes in Lebanese neighborhoods which could be flashed around the world on television. Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the shells would have been "to whom it may concern" because of their inaccuracy back in 1983. So Navy planes were sent to bomb antiaircraft sites so tiny that the pilots had to dive down on them to pick them out.
Vice Adm. M. Staser Holcomb, then deputy commander of Navy forces in the European theater, took one look at the bombing strike plan and recoiled in horror. The targets were not worth risking men and $40 million bombers on; he recommended using the New Jersey, if anything, to send Reagan's message to the Syrians. He was overruled. Two bombers were shot down. Lt. Mark Lange, the pilot of one bomber, died a grisly death on the ground in Lebanon. His bombardier, Lt. Robert Goodman, was captured by the Syrians, who exploited him for propaganda purposes before releasing him. Was their trip really necessary, given the presence of the New Jersey?
Navy leaders, some of whom conceded the New Jersey should have been used instead of bombers despite doubts about her guns' accuracy, said at the time that the big gap in the battleship's capability was spotters to direct her fire to the heart of the target. The spotter can be on the ground or looking down on the target area from a plane where he radios back instructions to gunners.
Although the Navy has been working on getting spotters in the fleet to direct the naval gunfire, more than two years after Lebanon the New Jersey and Iowa have yet to demonstrate that battleships have been transformed from obsolete blunderbusses to "smart" weapons which can contribute to the kind of "low-intensity" warfare the U.S. engaged in last week over Libya.
In bombing Tripoli and Benghazi, the Navy and Air Force put about 50 planes over Libya. One Air Force F111 bomber was shot down and crashed into the Mediterranean, and two fliers were killed. Imagine what could have happened if the fliers had ejected over Libya and fallen into the hands of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi? A horrifying memory comes to mind: The sight of U. S. fliers confessing over television after having been tortured by the North Vietnamese .
If Reagan intends to continue this hot-lead diplomacy with Libya -- which may be a bad idea, but that is a separate argument -- why not use the weapon that risks the fewest lives, American as well as civilians? The Libyan targets, all on the coast in easy reach of battleship guns, required putting those 50 warplanes, loaded with men, over a country dotted with anti-aircraft sites. One spotter plane could have directed fire from a battleship standing off the coast in the safety of the sea while carrrier aircraft guarded it against Libyan planes or boats. The Libyan targets were not going anywhere, so decision-makers could have waited for a battleship to reach the Mediterranean.
If laser gear and smart munitions, along with spotter aircraft, cannot make the battleships as accurate as bombers full of potential American hostages, then let's save the rest of the $2 billion and put these dinosaurs back into the museum as a reminder of the time when wars were simpler to fight and win. The battleships have yet to earn their keep.
George Wilson covers military affairs for The Washington Post.