Why America's Battleships Will Never Make a Comeback
There’s a mystique to battleships. Whenever inside-the-Beltway dwellers debate how to bulk up the U.S. Navy fleet, odds are sentimentalists will clamor to return the Iowa-class dreadnoughts to service. Nor is the idea of bringing back grizzled World War II veterans as zany as it sounds. We aren’t talking equipping the 1914-vintage USS Texas with superweapons to blast the Soviet Navy, or resurrecting the sunken Imperial Japanese Navy superbattleship Yamato for duty in outer space, or keeping USS Missouri battleworthy in case aliens menace the Hawaiian Islands. Such proposals are not mere whimsy.
Built to duel Japan in World War II, in fact, battleships were recommissioned for the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. The last returned to action in 1988. The Iowa class sat in mothballs for about three decades after Korea (except for USS New Jersey, which returned to duty briefly during the Vietnam War). That’s about how long the battlewagons have been in retirement since the Cold War. History thus seems to indicate they could stage yet another comeback. At this remove from their past lives, though, it’s doubtful in the extreme that the operational return on investment would repay the cost, effort, and human capital necessary to bring them back to life.
Numbers deceive. It cost the U.S. Navy $1.7 billion in 1988 dollars to put four battlewagons back in service during the Reagan naval buildup. That comes to about $878 million per hull in 2017 dollars. This figure implies the navy could refurbish two ships bristling with firepower for the price of one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. One copy of the latest-model Burke will set the taxpayers back $1.9 billion according to Congressional Budget Office figures. Two for the price of one: a low, low price! Or, better yet, the navy could get two battlewagons for the price of three littoral combat ships—the modern equivalent of gunboats. Sounds like a good deal all around.
But colossal practical difficulties would work against reactivating the dreadnoughts at low cost, despite these superficially plausible figures. First of all, the vessels no longer belong to the U.S. Navy. They’re museums. New Jersey and Missouri were struck from the navy list during the 1990s. Engineers preserved Iowa and Wisconsin in “reactivation” status for quite some time, meaning they hypothetically could return to duty. But they too were struck from the rolls, in 2006. Sure, the U.S. government could probably get them back during a national emergency, but resolving legal complications would consume time and money in peacetime.
Second, chronological age matters. A standard talking point among battleship enthusiasts holds that the Iowas resemble a little old lady’s car, an aged auto with little mileage on the odometer. A used-car salesman would laud its longevity, assuring would-be buyers they could put lots more miles on it. This too makes intuitive sense. My old ship, USS Wisconsin, amassed just fourteen years of steaming time despite deploying for World War II, Korea, and Desert Storm. At a time when the U.S. Navy hopes to wring fifty years of life out of aircraft carriers and forty out of cruisers and destroyers, refitted battleships could seemingly serve for decades to come.
And it is true: stout battleship hulls could doubtless withstand the rigors of sea service. But what about their internals? Mechanical age tells only part of the story. Had the Iowa class remained in continuous service, with regular upkeep and overhauls, they probably could have steamed around for decades. After all, the World War II flattop USS Lexington served until 1991, the same year the Iowas retired. But they didn’t get that treatment during the decades they spent slumbering. As a consequence, battleships were already hard ships to maintain a quarter-century ago. Sailors had to scavenge spares from still older battleships. Machinists, welders, and shipfitters were constantly on the go fabricating replacements for worn-out parts dating from the 1930s or 1940s.