The Navy, stung by the charge that its once-mothballed battleships can't hit the broad side of a barn with their vaunted 16-inch guns, is going back to the tried-and-true technique of having spotters direct their fire.
One example is the New Jersey, which stood off Lebanon in the Mediterranean in 1983 and 1984 to help protect U.S. Marines at the Beirut International Airport support the fragile government of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
In December 1983, President Reagan, after being talked out of using the battleship, ordered Navy bombers from the carriers John F. Kennedy and Independence to bomb targets in Lebanon in retaliation for missile firings at U.S. reconnaissance planes. Two bombers were lost in the Dec. 4 raid, one pilot was killed and a bombardier-navigator was captured.
After the raid, there was considerable second-guessing within and outside the Navy about why the New Jersey's 16-inch guns were not used. The big guns went into action several times after the raid, but the shells often fell wide of their targets. Navy officials acknowledged that the results were disappointing and that corrective measures had to be taken.
One big step the Navy has taken is to go back to training Grumman A6E bomber crews to spot rounds for battleship gunners. Under the program, A6E spotter planes would fly off a carrier near the battleship if they were in the same task force. If the battleship were on its own, the spotting would have to be done by other means, such as placing spotter teams on the ground.
The attempt to make battleship fire more accurate is part of a larger Navy effort to tie Navy gunfire to multiservice operations such as those in Grenada and Lebanon. In the invasion of Grenada, Navy ships stood ready to bombard the shore but were not called upon to, causing some Navy leaders to complain afterward that there was poor coordination between Army troops invading the southern half of the island, including Grenada's airport, and the guns offshore available to hit opposing Cuban forces.
In an effort to reduce the family strains on sailors and encourage reenlistments, the Navy has decided to cut the amount of time that its personnel spend at sea.
Adm. Carlisle A.H. Trost, the new Atlantic Fleet commander, said that starting in January the length of overseas deployments will be cut to six months or less. Sailors currently spend up to seven months a year away from home port.
"We've taken the rather significant steps of reviewing our training, how we do things, how we can be more efficient at sea," Trost said. "We see ways of markedly reducing time out of home port for many of our ships over the next year."
Shortening deployments of aircraft carriers, he said, should help the Navy retain pilots who have been leaving the service in large numbers in part because of the family strains caused by long absences.
Trost said the Navy will conduct more exercises in port or in nearby waters, ensuring that crews will remain home at least half the time.
"All of this presumes a continuing of this benign, so-called peaceful environment we live in now," said the admiral, who took command of the 287-ship Atlantic Fleet in October.