The debate over naval gunfire support has raged since the retirement of the Iowa-class battleships in 1991. While the widespread introduction of precision-guided munitions has made air support much more reliable and effective, there are still people who raise questions about adequate fire-support for Marine operations.
With the retirement of the Iowa-class battleships and their 16-inch (406mm) guns, despite superb performance in Operation Desert Storm, the largest guns for fire-support has been the 5-inch (127mm) guns on the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and the Spruance and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The Spruances are headed for retirement, though. This leaves the Navy arguably short on bombardment capability, particularly due to the troubled development of the Extended-Range Guided Munition, which was to have a range of 100 kilometers. The 155mm shells for the Advanced Gun System on the Zumwalt-class destroyers will have a range of 180 kilometers. However, these are relatively small shells, weighing about 260 pounds (118 kilograms) for the 155mm and 110 pounds (50 kilograms) for the 5-inch shells.
While better than nothing, the United States Marine Corps is not convinced there is enough fire support to do the job, even with the shift of carrier air wings to an all-Hornet strike wing (consisting of F/A-18E/F and F/A-18C Hornets) . While aircraft with smart bombs can deliver ordinance cheaply ($18,000 for a GBU-31 based off of the Mk84), and on target (currently within 40 feet, but in reality it is much closer a new version promises hits within ten feet), there is a lengthy turnaround time to fuel and re-arm the aircraft. Tomahawks or other land-attack missiles (like the suspended Land-Attack Standard Missile, which has a speed of Mach 3.5, and a range of 280 kilometers) are expensive ($500,000 per Tomahawk, roughly $420,000 for the Standard missile). Naval gunfire support (and artillery) doesnt have the drawback of a lengthy period of time for a follow-up attack or high cost.
These perceived shortfalls in fire support are the reason that there has been a lobbying effort to reactivate at least two of the Iowa-class battleships, led by the United States Naval Fire Support Association (USNFSA). The two ships that would return to service should the USNFSA get its way are the Iowa (the #2 turret has been nearly repaired, and the parts to complete the repairs are stored in that turret) and the Wisconsin. These ships would be equipped with shells developed from the HE-ER Mk 148 program (cancelled after the 1991 decommissioning of the battleships). The Ex-148 was slated to have a range of 91 kilometers using a 13.5-inch (343mm) shell in a sabot. An 11-inch (280mm) version would have had a range of 180 kilometers (equivalent to the 155mm AGS). These shells, at 1,400 pounds/635 kilograms and 694 pounds/315 kilograms respectively, are much larger than the shells from the 127mm and 155mm guns. For targets close to shore (within 15 miles/25 kilometers or so), the Iowas could use their regular shells, either the 2,700-pound (1,225-kilogram) armor-piercing shell or the 1,900-pound (862-kilogram) high-capacity shell. This is possible due to the fact that the Iowa-class battleships carry much more armor than the Burke and Zumwalt-class destroyers, and are thus much more resistant to damage.
The controversy will not go away, even after the last Iowa becomes a museum. If anything, a new era of the big gun could be dawning as the United States Navy seeks to address the concerns of the Marines or at least to quiet the complaints before Congress takes note of them and makes the Navy do something. Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])
USNFSA website: http://www.usnfsa.org (a number of links on that site