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USS Kentucky: The Super Battleship the Navy Almost Built

Iowa-Class
Iowa-class Battleship.

Laid down in 1942, USS Kentucky (BB-66) was originally intended as the second ship of the planned Montana-class of heavy battleships. However, lessons learned in the early stages of the war convinced the U.S. Navy that instead of larger and more heavily armed battle wagons, it needed more “fast battleships” that could escort the new Essex-class aircraft carriers.

Never Meant To Be, But Repurposed 

With time and resources already invested, the hulls for BB-65 and then BB-66 were reordered and laid down as Iowa-class battleships. Four of those 45,000-ton ships were eventually built, but both were still under construction when the war came to an end. Construction had been suspended twice during the war, and instead of sailing into action, Kentucky served as a parts hulk.

However, in January 1950 the incomplete hull was finally launched to make the building-dock available for other uses. Several schemes were considered, including completing Kentucky as a guided-missile ship. Advances in guided missile technology had led to the proposal to create a large warship that could be armed with both traditional guns and missiles. Kentucky was seen as a way to bridge the old with the new.

The proposal was relatively conservative and would have included the installation of a pair of twin arm launchers for the RIM-2 Terrier surface-to-air missile (SAM) on the aft deckhouse, while a pair of antennas for the associated AN/APG-55 pulse-Doppler interception radar would have been installed forward of the missiles, while AN/SPS-2B air search radar would have also been installed.

As USS Kentucky was already about three-quarters completed, with construction halted at the main deck, it was expected that installation of the missile system and associated electronics would have only involved adding the necessary equipment without a need to rebuild the ship to accommodate this adaptation. The guided-missile project was actually authorized in 1954, and Kentucky was subsequently redesignated and renumbered accordingly from BB-61 to BBG-1.

The conversion was due to be completed in 1956 – but it wasn’t to be. The project was canceled and many of the conversion ideas were transferred to a smaller platform. The result was the Boston-class guided-missile cruiser.

A second conversion project was then considered in early 1956 that could have seen the warship fitted with two Polaris ballistic missile launchers with a capacity for sixteen weapons. Kentucky would have also been equipped with four RIM-8 Talos SAM launchers with a total of eighty missiles per launcher; and twelve FIM-24 Tartar SAM launchers with 504 missiles. A July 1956 estimated conducted by the Navy estimated that the project upgrades could be completed by July 1961.

Yet again it wasn’t to be. The costs of the conversion forced the Navy to abandon the project. Instead, the bow of Kentucky was removed to repair her completed sister ship USS Wisconsin (BB-64) – the last of Iowa-class to be built – after the latter vessel was damaged in a collision with a destroyer. The rest of Kentucky was sold for scrap. BB-66’s engines were saved and were used to power the fast combat support ships USS Sacramento (AOE-1) and USS Camden (AOE-2).

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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