The Buzz

Iowa-Class Battleship: The Warship the Navy Wishes It Could Bring Back from the Dead

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 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. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This first appeared last year.