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Battleships: Could the U.S. Navy Bring Them Out of Retirement?

The Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fires at positions near Beirut on 9 January 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War.
The Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fires at positions near Beirut on 9 January 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War.

Since I was a little boy, I have been obsessed with U.S. Navy battleships – and maybe seeing them someday head back out onto the high seas.

I know it will never happen, but a 43-year-old man can dream, right?

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Anywho, I will never forget being 12 years old, sleeping over on the USS Massachusetts, and being awed by the size and scope of these monster warships. 

So, the question should be asked: why can’t, for example, the museum battleships like the Iowa-class ever make a comeback? 

Well, according to an article from my mentor, Dr. James Holmes, from the U.S. Naval War College, it comes down to what I would call Guns and Ammo: 

As he explained a few years back in The National Interest, where I served as Executive Editor: 

“[W]hat about the big guns the Iowa class sports—naval rifles able to fling projectiles weighing the same as a VW Bug over twenty miles?

These are the battleships’ signature weapon, and there is no counterpart to them in today’s fleet. Massive firepower might seem to justify the expense of recommissioning and maintaining the ships. But gun barrels wear out after being fired enough times.

No one has manufactured replacement barrels for 16-inch, 50-caliber guns in decades, and the inventory of spares has evidently been scrapped or donated to museums. That shortage would cap the battleships’ combat usefulness.

Nor, evidently, is there any safe ammunition for battleship big guns to fire.

We used 1950s-vintage 16-inch rounds and powder during the 1980s and 1990s.

Any such rounds still in existence are now over sixty years old, while the U.S. Navy is apparently looking to demilitarize and dispose of them. Gearing up to produce barrels and ammunition in small batches would represent a nonstarter for defense firms.

The navy recently canceled the destroyer USS Zumwalt’s advanced gun rounds because costs spiraled above $800,000 apiece. That was a function of ordering few munitions for what is just a three-ship class. Ammunition was simply unaffordable.

Modernized Iowas would find themselves in the same predicament, if not more so.” 

Sadly, if the guns can’t fire and there is no reliable ammo the dream of a battleship reboot is dead. 

Iowa-Class Battleships

The Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fires at positions near Beirut on 9 January 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War.


Iowa-class battleship firing a broadside. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Iowa-Class Battleship

Iowa-class battleship firing off a broadside.

What a shame. 

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive and serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization. Kazianis also has a background in defense journalism, having served as Editor-In-Chief at The Diplomat and Executive Editor for the National Interest.