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Battleship Comeback: Could The Navy Unretire The Iowa-class Battleships?

Battleship Comeback
An aerial bow view of the battleship USS IOWA (BB-61) with its 15 guns (nine 16-inch and six 5-inch) firing a salvo off the starboard side.

A Battleship comeback? Battleships captivate the imagination. Before they were displaced by aircraft carriers, battleships were symbols of great-power status. Some of the most iconic were the American Iowa class, the last battleships ever built by the United States. Powerful in appearance, yet with sleek lines filled in with haze gray, the Iowa class served in World War II and were unretired three more times to serve as the U.S. Navy’s big guns. Can a battleship comeback really happen? If we brought them back today, what would they look like?

How a Battleship Comeback Could Happen 

The National Defense Authorization Act for 1996, generally known as the defense budget, had a unique provision hidden inside the text: the text directed the Navy to keep at least of the four Iowa-class ships on the Naval Register in good condition, retain the logistical support to maintain battleships on active duty and keep those ships on the Register until the secretary of the navy certified that existing naval gunfire support equaled or exceeded the firepower of two battleships. Iowa and Wisconsin were finally stricken from the Register in 2006 after the secretary of the navy, citing the upcoming thirty-two Zumwalt-class destroyers, certified they were no longer needed.

Now, years later, the Navy is only getting three of the thirty-two Zumwalt destroyers, and the long-range attack projectile specifically designed for the Zumwalt’s two 155-millimeter guns is being canceled due to exorbitant costs. The Navy is again facing a naval gunfire shortfall, in addition to an antiship shortfall. Could the Iowas make yet another comeback, bolstered with new and powerful weapons?

Battleship Comeback: 4 Ideas To Keep in Mind 

In laying the groundwork for battleship modernizations, there are four things that must happen for any successful update.

The Iowa-class battleships were designed in the late 1930s, and a lot has happened in the last eighty years. First, the ships must be highly automated. The ships originally sailed with crews of up to 2,700 personnel, later reduced to 1,800. The U.S. Navy is no longer a draftee service, and personnel costs in the all-volunteer Navy are major expenses. Prime candidates for automation are older mechanical systems, such as the three sixteen-inch gun turrets, each of which has a crew of over a hundred, and the power plant and engineering.

Second, the battleships would return to the field just as firepower is transitioning from being gunpowder-based to electricity-based. The ship will need all the power it can get to power the new generation of weapons systems that will go onboard. A nuclear power plant would provide power in the megawatts range, while requiring fewer crew to operate it. An alternative is the electric drive system that powers the Zumwalt class, albeit on a larger scale, delivering even greater power.

Third, the battleships need to be able to sink ships at ranges of at least two hundred miles and hit land targets at eight hundred to a thousand miles. At 887 feet long, the battlewagons will be prime targets for land- and sea-based antiship missiles and must have a reasonable chance of operating from beyond their ranges. While the effective range of antiship missiles will only continue to grow, a long-distance striking capability will still be useful against other targets, including island garrisons, airbases and enemy ships.

Fourth, the battleships will be purely offensive weapons designed to attack targets on land and at sea. They will not have advanced radar systems aboard, nor will they equip the Standard family of missiles, nor will they jump on the ballistic-missile defense bandwagon. In order to justify their existence, they must be able to contribute as much offensive firepower as possible.

A reactivated battleship would not replace a carrier—the two would operate separately but symbiotically. A guided-missile battleship’s long-range firepower would suppress enemy air defenses, allowing carrier aircraft a freer hand over enemy territory. In return, carriers would provide antisubmarine and antiair cover for the battleship.

Our upgrade for the Iowa-class battleships would turn them from battleships (BBs) to guided missile battleships (BBGs). We’ll start by funding development of a sixteen-inch hypervelocity guided projectile along the lines of the HVP round currently being developed by BAE Systems. That round, for the 127-millimeter Mk. 45 gun on all Navy cruisers and destroyers and the 155-millimeter gun on the Zumwalt destroyers, will have a range of exceeding a hundred miles. How far a sixteen-inch hypervelocity shell could reach is unknown, but performance matching the 155-millimeter version doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Taking a cue from the Pentagon, making the ship’s main battery more efficient means that we can cut it. The aft sixteen-inch gun turret has to go, in order to give the ship a long-range strike capability. In its place we will put a field of 320 to 470 Mk. 41 variant vertical-launch systems that will accommodate a purely offensive loadout: Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles with a two-hundred-plus-mile range and Tactical Tomahawk missiles with a thousand-mile range. Even longer-range missiles would be welcome additions to the BBG’s new arsenal, and could even be stored in deck-mounted armored box launchers if necessary.

The remaining five-inch gun turrets on the Iowa-classes’ port and starboard sides are obsolete. The solution: ripping out the turrets and replacing them with a pair of railguns. Four railguns would increase the battleship’s firepower against land targets, helping make up for the loss of the aft sixteen-inch turret.

The BBGs would not be totally defenseless: the upgrade of the early 1980s saw four Phalanx CIWS guns installed. In their place we could install newer SeaRAM point defense missile launchers, or even defensive laser weapons in the hundred-kilowatt range, fed power from the nuclear reactors.

The BBGs will retain their helicopter landing pad. The battlewagons will rely on cruiser and destroyer escorts to fend of air and subsurface threats, and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, MQ-4 Triton drones and other unmanned aircraft, and submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles for targeting data. One outside possibility is the battleships being equipped with TERN tailsitter drones capable taking off and landing vertically, providing an organic, long-distance scouting capability not unlike the Vought OS2U Kingfisher seaplanes that equipped the Iowas in the 1940s.

The result of this conversion is a BBG that could sink any enemy surface action group protecting an enemy island or coastline, then strike antiaccess/area-denial targets such as antiship ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missile batteries, radars, air bases and and other enemy targets. Once it was safe enough to close within a hundred miles of the enemy coast, sixteen-inch guns with hypervelocity shells would come into play, destroying a half-dozen targets at a time with precision.

The Battleship Comeback That Will Never Happen?

The Iowa-class battleships will remain museum pieces for the foreseeable future. Still, if the will and the funding were there, there are some very interesting things that could be done with them that would neatly patch holes in the U.S. Navy’s force structure—particularly the ability to fight and sink enemy ships. While a comeback is unlikely, it’s always nice to dream.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.

Written By

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Fransisco. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Esquire, The National Interest, Car and Driver, Men's Health, and many others. He is the founder and editor for the blogs Japan Security Watch, Asia Security Watch and War Is Boring.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Brian C Reeves

    October 13, 2021 at 9:17 am

    As a retired Master Chief Boiler Technician and certified USN Boiler Inspector I got pretty excited when I saw the headline. It didn’t take long to get deflated as I read the proposal for nuclear reactors to replace the old teapots currently installed. I can still close my eyes and go through the lighting off and raising steam process step by step. Ahhh, the good old days! Would love to see the old girls back in action even if they would glow in the dark…

  2. steve smith

    October 13, 2021 at 10:07 am

    1) The only potential value in the Iowa-class is their guns. The Navy found during World War II that guns smaller than 8″ were ineffective against entrenched targets. A 5″ gun could work well to break up an attack but was of limited value in offense. Hence, the folly of the 155mm shore bombardment weapon.

    2) The failure to replace the 5″ guns with newer, automatic weapons was a great mistake when the Iowas were brought back to service in the 1980’s.

    3) High automation would require replacing the power plants and rudder machinery that require extensive manning.

    4) Except for USS New Jersey, the hulls are in really bad shape and leak. Including, USS New Jersey, the ships leak from above as well.

    5) Because of the armor, the only practicable place to install VLS packs is where the turrets are. Removing a turret would create a 37-foot circular hole, surrounded by armored barbettes that would not hold that much in the way of VLS. Get rid of the barbettes and you get rid of the structural support for the decks.

  3. Chris Cha

    October 13, 2021 at 11:27 am

    Count me among those who think our Navy should pursue the “quality of quantity”. We need more ships in the fleet even if they are smaller ships. Pump out the frigates and more light carriers (which should also be nuclear powered).

  4. David Cartier

    October 13, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Battleships became obsolete in 1916. That this idea keeps coming up shows how ignorant many military writers are. It isn’t practical, to essentially gut an 80 years old ship, to cut through the armored hull in order to switch out the mechanical systems. Granted, modern very low friction marine coatings, computer designed propellers and bow thrusters could add a good ten knots and incredible agility. Nuclear power plants could power modern laser and magnetic weapons. All it takes is for one single modern torpedo to get through, and everything will be rushing to the bottom. Our modern aircraft carriers already have the necessary speed and room for new weapons systems.

  5. Jon Cardin

    October 13, 2021 at 1:03 pm

    While you have many good points, I argue automating the main gun turrets is a better option than throwing missiles aboard a ship never intended for such stresses. I agree that Nuclear may be a good option, but other experimental powerplants should be avoided. Reliability and cost is a huge factor, and automating everything and keeping what works is essential.Use the un technology from the Abrams for the smaller turrets, recycle wherever possible with current equipment. Cover the ship in CWIS turrets for anything crazy enough to get close, and rule the seas.

  6. Sailorcurt

    October 13, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    So, basically, what you’re saying is, if we make all the same mistakes in refitting the battleships as we made and that doomed the Zumwalt class destroyers, then the battleships can come back.

    Is that about right?

    Great plan that is. Because after the refitting costs hit about four or five times what they projected they would and half (or more) of the brand-new “state of the art” systems fail to work and 15 years or so pass without any operational battleships taking to the seas, I’m sure that program wouldn’t then get canceled either right?

    Which is all a moot point anyway because with our new “woke” navy that’s more concerned with personal pronouns and officers that display the appropriate levels of white guilt than having competent warfighters on board won’t be able to fight their way out of a paper bag without bouncing their ships off of freighters or underwater obstacles and then setting them on fire and burning them to the waterline because they subordinated fire control training for classes on critical race theory [loud inhale].

    But I’m not bitter or anything.

    I guess it’s a good thing Taiwan kept Mandarin as their official language…they’ll be needing it soon.

  7. Rich

    October 13, 2021 at 5:54 pm

    Guys, Just S T O P. In 2021 this is a fairy tale, there is a higher chance that Hogwarts really exists than the old Battle Wagons will come back! Even if all the improvements were put in, the bottom line is that the greatest life-cycle cost after initial construction for any ship is paying the crew that will man the ship. You are looking at about 1500 sailors, there is more to the cost per sailor than just pay, so if I take what is probably a low ball average of 35K a year, per sailor, that’s over 52M per YEAR, it’s just not feasible! Oh, and if you think you are going to dig those boilers our and move nuke reactors in there you’re nuts, and I can only imagine what 30ish years as museum ships have done to the gear mechanisms to turn the propellers, it’s either fused, rusted or some combination of the both…

  8. John

    October 14, 2021 at 8:23 am

    NOT FEASIBLE…PERIOD.

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