ABOARD THE USS WISCONSIN OFF BAHRAIN, SEPT. 11 -- This heavily armored floating bunker was set today to become the first U.S. battleship in the Persian Gulf to fire its imposing, long-range guns. But it proved impossible to find a 25-mile deep corridor clear of all ships and fishing vessels that it needs for a firing range. And not a shot was heard.
The U.S. Navy has brought the Wisconsin, with its nine 16-inch guns capable of hurling a 2,700-pound projectile 23 miles, into the gulf as a centerpiece in the U.S. show of power to encourage Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to rethink his occupation and annexation of Kuwait.
But like the U.S. Marines on the ground in Saudi Arabia, the Navy seems mindful of its troubles in Lebanon during the 1983-84 peace-keeping operation and is still searching for the battleship's rightful role in modern-day warfare.
The Marines remember acutely the car bomb explosion against their Beirut headquarters in October 1983 that killed 241 of their colleagues. They are taking measures to avoid a similar disaster.
Officers aboard the Wisconsin are just as aware of the failure of another battleship, the New Jersey, to use its massive firepower effectively against the Syrian army and Lebanese militia forces there despite its advanced billing as an awesome war machine.
The trouble for the World War II vintage battleships is that "they've never been given a big job to do," said the Wisconsin's captain, Jerry Blesch.
"We might sit out here for the next year and half and never fire a shot," he said. But, he argued, "We'll have accomplished our mission."
Blesch talked about his ship's mission to a seven-member pool of Western reporters flown out to the Wisconsin from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to witness the historic occasion of the first test firing in the gulf of a battleship's 16-inch guns.
He agreed that there had been a lot of questions about the Wisconsin's role in the gulf. Blesch, a native of Fort Thomas, Ky., said he believed that the Wisconsin has a triple mission to fulfill in the standoff with Saddam Hussein over Kuwait.
The first mission "is to make an impact just by virtue of the fact we're here," he said noting that the Wisconsin with its thick armor inside the hull is like a floating bunker "right here at the front door of Saddam Hussein. That definitely makes a statement."
The Wisconsin's second mission, he said, is to provide the U.S. military with long-range firepower capable of hitting deep into occupied Kuwait or Iraq. He said the 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles aboard were meant to demonstrate that the United States has that capability.
Finally, the Wisconsin with its nine 16-inch guns and a dozen 5-inch ones stands ready to provide U.S. ground forces with gunfire support should President Bush decide to send them in to recapture Kuwait.
Blesch seemed confident that the gunnery problems that plagued the New Jersey in firing into the mountains behind Beirut in defense of the U.S. Marine peace-keeping force would not be repeated here in the gulf. Lack of forward spotters and difficulties of shooting in mountainous terrain led to poor performance there.
"Since those days we've made a lot of improvements to our gunnery," he said. The use of radar and naval gunfire liaison officers known as ANGILO spotters had given the Wisconsin better than 90 percent accuracy in recent target practice, the captain said.
Still, some of the special problems of operating a battleship in a relatively small body of water such as the gulf, seemed amply illustrated by today's difficulties in trying to test fire the Wisconsin's big guns. Even though Blesch had staked out an area outside the main air and sea corridors, merchant ships kept getting in the way.
Safety precautions in test firing the Wisconsin's big guns in the gulf often involve sending aloft a balloon to measure the humidity, temperature and air pressure to determine the "sound focus," the distance and direction the sound of the big guns is likely to travel.
Under certain circumstances, the guns could be test fired, and somebody 40 miles away "might think you're on the next block and about to shoot him," said Blesch.
No balloon was sent up today. But the captain did shoot off a Remote Pilotless Vehicle used to check the designated firing range for small wooden fishing boats, known as dhows, that often escape radar detection and could easily get in the way.
After 90 minutes of trying to maneuver the Wisconsin into position to fire its aft 16-inch gun, Blesch gave up.
"It's difficult to find an area where you can fire in excess of 21 miles, or have a clear range in excess of 21 miles with no shipping," remarked the chief gunnery officer, Jim Russell, 32, of Merritt Island, Fla. "That was basically the difficulty today."
Commissioned: April 16, 1944; recommissioned Oct. 22, 1988.
Length: 887 feet
Displacement: 57,353 tons, fully loaded
Significant armament: nine 16-inch guns, capable of lobbing shells the size of Volkswagens at targets more than 20 miles away; 12 five-inch guns; 32 Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles; Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Armor: The Wisconsin and other Iowa-class battleships are protected by steel armor ranging from 1 1/2 inches wide to more than 17 inches wide around the bridge. SOURCE: "Jane's Fighting Ships," U.S. Navy