United States naval gunfire support debate
The United States naval gunfire support debate is an ongoing debate among the United States Navy, Marine Corps, Congress, and independent groups like the United States Naval Gunfire Support Association over what role naval gunfire support and naval surface fire support (NSFS) should play within the navy and how such a role can best be provided. At the heart of the issue is the role that naval gunfire support—the use of naval artillery to provide fire support for amphibious assault and other troops operating within their range—should play in the U.S. Navy of the 21st century.
Although the debate at large traces its roots back to the end of World War II, the current debate began in 1992 with the retirement of the last active Iowa-class battleship, USS Missouri (BB-63), as a result of the reduced demand for naval artillery, the rise of ship and submarine-launched missiles and aircraft-launched precision guided munitions (such as laser-guided bombs, which can accurately strike and destroy an enemy target with a single strike). The most striking point of the debate in the United States centers on battleships: owing to the longtime maintenance and upkeep that the four completed Iowa-class battleships have undergone during their time in the navy's active and mothball fleets, many still view battleships as viable solutions for gunfire support, and these members have questioned if the navy can adequately replace the gunfire support provided by a battleship's main guns with the smaller guns on its current fleet of cruisers and destroyers.
The debate has played out across a wide spectrum of media, including newspapers, magazines, web blogs, and congressional research arms like the Government Accountability Office. Each side has presented different arguments on the best approach to the problem, but most of the participants favor the continuation of the DD(X) program or the reinstatement of the Iowa-class battleships to the Naval Vessel Register. The Iowa-class battleships, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and Zumwalt-class destroyers have entered the debate as options put forward for naval gunfire support, while others advocate the use of specifically designed close air support planes and newer missile systems that can loiter in an area as a replacement for naval gunfire.
Within a few years of the end of World War II, the United States deactivated all of its remaining battleships and placed them in the United States Navy reserve fleets. Most of these ships were eventually scrapped, but the four Iowa-class battleships were not, and on several occasions one or more of these four battleships were reactivated for naval gunfire support. The U.S. Navy has held onto the four Iowa-class battleships long after the upkeep and maintenance of operating and maintaining a battleship and the arrival of aircraft and precision guided munitions led other nations to scrap their big-gun fleets. Congress was largely responsible for keeping the four Iowa-class battleships in the United States Navy reserve fleets and on the Naval Vessel Register as long as they did. The lawmakers argued that the battleships' large-caliber guns had a useful destructive power that is lacking in the smaller, cheaper, and faster guns mounted by U.S. cruisers and destroyers.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan proposed creating a 600-ship navy as part of the overall defense department build-up to counter the threat of the armed forces of the Soviet Union; both the Soviet Army and Navy had grown in the aftermath of the unification of Vietnam in 1975 and the loss of faith that Americans had in their armed services. As part of this, all four Iowa-class battleships were modernized and reactivated. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the 600-ship navy was seen as too costly to maintain, and so the navy made plans to return to its traditional 313-ship fleet. This led to the deactivation of many ships in the navy's fleet, including the four reactivated battleships; all were removed from service between 1990 and 1992. Originally, the navy had struck all four ships and made plans to donate them, however Congress intervened in this plan with the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996. Section 1011 required the United States Navy to reinstate to the Naval Vessel Register two of the Iowa-class battleships that had been struck by the navy in 1995; these ships were to be maintained in the United States Navy Reserve Fleets. The Navy was to ensure that both of the reinstated battleships were in good condition and could be reactivated for use in the Marine Corps' amphibious operations. Both battleships were to be maintained with the reserve fleet until such a time as the navy could certify that it had within its fleet the operational capacity to meet or exceed the gunfire support that both battleships could provide. To comply with this requirement, the navy selected the battleships New Jersey and Wisconsin for reinstatement to the Naval Vessel Register.
New Jersey remained in the mothball fleet until the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act of 1999 passed through the United States Congress 18 October 1998. Section 1011 required the United States Secretary of the Navy to list and maintain Iowa and Wisconsin on the Naval Vessel Register, while Section 1012 required the Secretary of the Navy to strike New Jersey from the Naval Vessel Register and transfer the battleship to a not-for-profit entity in accordance with section 7306 of Title 10, United States Code. Section 1012 also required the transferee to locate the battleship in the State of New Jersey. The navy made the switch in January 1999. Iowa and Wisconsin were finally stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in 2006.
Replacing the battleships
The navy sees the battleships as prohibitively expensive, and is working to persuade Congress to allow it to remove Iowa and Wisconsin from the Naval Vessel Register by developing extended-range guided munitions and a new ship to fulfill marine corps requirements for naval surface fire support (NSFS).
The navy plan originally called for the extension of the range of the 5-inch (127 mm) guns on the Flight I Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers (USS Arleigh Burke to Ross) with Extended Range Guided Munitions (ERGMs) that would enable the ships to fire precision guided projectiles about 40 nautical miles (70 km) inland. The program was initiated in 1996 with a preliminary cost of US $78.6 million; however, the cost of the program increased 400% during its research and development phase. The results of the program had been similarly disappointing: the original expected operational capability date was pushed from 2001 to 2011 before being cancelled by the navy in March 2008 for budget-related reasons and an apparent shift by the navy from the ERGM program to the Ballistic Trajectory Extended Range Munition (BTERM) program. These weapons are neither intended nor expected to satisfy the full range of the marine corps requirements.
The result of the latter effort to design and build a replacement ship for the two battleships was the Zumwalt-class destroyer program, also known either as the DD(X) or DDG-1000 (in reference to the hull number assigned to Zumwalt). The DD(X) was to mount a pair of Advanced Gun System turrets capable of firing specially designed Long Range Land Attack Projectiles some 60 miles (100 km) inland. Originally, the navy had planned to build a total of 32 of these destroyers, however the increasing cost of the program led the navy to reduce the overall number of destroyers built from 32 to 24. In 2007 the total procurement of Zumwalt-class destroyers was further reduced to a total of seven, before being discontinued at a total of two destroyers in July 2008 as a result of the high cost of building each of the two ships. In September 2008 the navy and the House of Representatives reached an agreement which will allow for the construction of a third DD(X) destroyer, bringing the total number of Zumwalt-class destroyers to three.
The discontinuation of the class is due in part to concerns that the Zumwalt ships may deprive other projects of needed funding, a concern that has been raised by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Congressional Research Service (CRS), and the Government Accountability Office, all of which have issued reports that suggest that total cost of each ship could be as high as $5 billion or more. In addition to the high cost, naval officials discussing the cancellation of the DD(X) program cited the inability of the DD(X) to fire the Standard missile or provide adequate air defense coverage, and a "classified threat" which the navy feels can be better handled by the current Arleigh Burke-class destroyers than by the Zumwalt-class destroyers. The article also reported that the Marine Corps no longer needs the long-range fire support from the Zumwalts’ 155 mm Advanced Gun System because such fire support can be provided by Tactical Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision airstrikes.
Striking the Iowa-class battleships
On 17 March 2006, while the ERGM and DD(X) programs were under development, the Secretary of the Navy exercised his authority to strike Iowa and Wisconsin from the Naval Vessel Register, which cleared the way for both ships to be donated for use as museums. The United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps had both certified that battleships would not be needed in any future war, and have thus turned their attention to development and construction of the next generation Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers.
However, this move has drawn fire from sources familiar with the subject; among them are dissenting members of the United States Marine Corps. These dissenters argue that battleships are still a viable solution to naval gunfire support, members of the United States Congress who remain "deeply concerned" over the loss of naval surface gunfire support that the battleships provided, and a number of independent groups such as the United States' Naval Fire Support Association (USNFSA) whose ranks frequently include former members of the armed service and fans of the battleships. Although the arguments presented from each group differ, they all agree that the United States Navy has not in good faith considered the potential of reactivated battleships for use in the field, a position that is supported by a 1999 Government Accountability Office report regarding the United States Navy's gunfire support program.
In response, the navy has pointed to the cost of reactivating the two Iowa-class battleships to their decommissioned capability. The navy estimates costs in excess of $500 million, but this does not include an additional $110 million needed to replenish the gunpowder for the 16-inch (406 mm) guns because a survey found the powder to be unsafe. In terms of schedule, the Navy's program management office estimates that reactivation would take 20 to 40 months, given the loss of corporate memory and the shipyard industrial base.
Reactivating the battleships would require a wide range of battleship modernization improvements, according to the navy's program management office. At a minimum, these modernization improvements include command and control, communications, computers, and intelligence equipment; environmental protection (including ozone-depleting substances); a plastic-waste processor; pulper/shredder and wastewater alterations; firefighting/fire safety and women-at-sea alterations; a modernized sensor suite (air and surface search radar); and new combat and self-defense systems. The navy's program management office also identified other issues that would strongly discourage the Navy from reactivating and modernizing the battleships. For example, personnel needed to operate the battleships would be extensive, and the skills needed may not be available or easily reconstituted. Other issues include the age and unreliability of the battleships' propulsion systems and the fact that the navy no longer maintains the capability to manufacture their 16-inch (410 mm) gun system components and ordnance.
Although the navy firmly believes in the capabilities of the DD(X) destroyer program, members of the United States Congress remain skeptical about the efficiency of the new destroyers when compared to the battleships. Partially as a consequence, Congress passed Pub. L. 109-364, the National Defense Authorization Act 2007, requiring the battleships be kept and maintained in a state of readiness should they ever be needed again. Congress has ordered that the following measures be implemented to ensure that, if need be, Iowa and Wisconsin can be returned to active duty:
- Iowa and Wisconsin must not be altered in any way that would impair their military utility;
- The battleships must be preserved in their present condition through the continued use of cathodic protection, dehumidification systems, and any other preservation methods as needed;
- Spare parts and unique equipment such as the 16-inch (410 mm) gun barrels and projectiles be preserved in adequate numbers to support Iowa and Wisconsin, if reactivated;
- The navy must prepare plans for the rapid reactivation of Iowa and Wisconsin should they be returned to the navy in the event of a national emergency.
These four conditions closely mirror the original three conditions that the Nation Defense Authorization Act of 1996 laid out for the maintenance of Iowa and Wisconsin while they were in the Mothball Fleet.
Alternatives to naval gunfire
During the period of time in which the battleships were out of commission in the United States, several technological updates and breakthroughs enabled naval ships, submarines, and aircraft to compensate for the absence of big guns within the fleet.
The earliest challenge to naval artillery was the advent of aircraft and armour piercing/incendiary bombs, which could be used against land based targets in support of troop formations ashore. Although in its infancy during and after World War I, some saw the potential for aircraft and sea based air support and envisioned the role it would have in future conflicts. Among the more notable individuals within the United States was Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. Mitchell had served in World War I, where he eventually commanded all U.S. aircraft in the war and was responsible for leading Allied aircraft in support of the ground offensive during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, one of the first coordinated air-ground offensives in history. Mitchell's experience in World War I led him to believe that battleships were out of date, and he became an increasingly vocal proponent of air power.
In 1921, Mitchell first demonstrated to the world that battleships and other gun dependent vessels could be sunk by aircraft loaded with heavy bombs. In one of his most famous demonstrations, Mitchell convinced the Navy to allow bomb loaded aircraft to attack the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, a battleship taken as a prize of war by the United States in 1918. Although the Navy had placed strict rules on the bombing exercise, Mitchell and his men violated the rules and attacked the battleship head on, which caused the vessel to sink in a mere 22 minutes. Although downplayed at the time this would have a dramatic effect on U.S. policy, leading to increased research and development for aircraft.
By World War II naval aircraft had evolved to the point where they posed a threat to battleships and other naval vessels that lacked sufficient anti-aircraft defense. During WWII air raids accounted for the loss of warships and merchant vessels of all types, including the battleships Conte di Cavour, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Prince of Wales, Roma, Musashi, Tirpitz, Yamato, Schleswig-Holstein, Impero, Lemnos, Kilkis, Ise and Hyūga. These losses were sustained even after the introduction of the "All or Nothing" armor scheme (armor belts intended to protect battleships from guns of an equal or lesser caliber than their own) and the recognition of the role of airpower and the rise of various ship based anti-aircraft guns meant to improve air defense aboard ships. In addition to their role in attacking ships, several aircraft like the P-47 Thunderbolt were employed for close air support for ground based troops in Europe and in the Pacific.
By the time of the Korean War air power had been supplemented by the introduction of the jet engine, which allowed fighter and bomber aircraft to fly faster. As with their World War II predecessors, the newer jet aircraft proved capable of providing close air support for ground based troops, and were instrumental in aiding UN ground forces during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
The Vietnam War saw the introduction of helicopter gunships which could be employed to support ground based forces, and the experience gained in Vietnam would spawn the creation of several aircraft during and after the war designed specifically to aid ground forces, including the AC-47 Spooky, Fairchild AC-119, Lockheed AC-130, and A-10 Thunderbolt II, all of which are operated by the Air Force, and the F/A-18 Hornet which is operated by the navy. In addition, the army and marine corps operate UH-1 Iroquois, AH-1 Cobra, and AH-64 Apache helicopters for close air support, and these helicopters can be stationed onboard amphibious assault ships to provide ship-to-shore air support for ground forces. These aircraft would later prove instrumental in aiding ground forces from the 1980s onwards, and would be involved in the 1991 Gulf War, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Starting after the invasion of Iraq, the air force began arming unmanned drone aircraft to perform strike missions. Originally designed for prolonged surveillance (and ironically to act as spotters for naval artillery), these aircraft typically have greater endurance than manned strike aircraft and some degree of automation to allow them to patrol for activity without requiring the constant attention of a pilot. This permitted the fielding of a less expensive aerial force which could maintain constant surveillance for enemy targets and conduct strikes on any targets encountered.
Towards the end of World War II Germany introduced the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missiles in combat against the Allied forces. The missiles arrived too late to alter the course of the war, but after the fall of Nazi Germany the V-1 and V-2 rockets would form the foundations for the space race and for the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction by providing each superpower with Ballistic Missiles and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
The rise of precision strike munitions in the 1970s and 1980s reduced the need for a massive naval bombardment against an enemy force, as missiles could now be used against such targets to support ground forces and to destroy targets in advance of the arrival of troops. Guided missiles can also fire much further than the guns of any destroyer, cruiser, frigate, or battleship, allowing for strikes deep into the heart of enemy territory without risking the lives of pilots or airplanes. This led to a major shift in naval thinking, and as a result ships became more dependent on missile magazines than on their guns for offensive and defensive capabilities. This was demonstrated in the 1980s, when all four recommissioned battleships were outfitted with missile magazines, and again in the 1991 Gulf War, when both Missouri and Wisconsin launched missile volleys against targets in Iraq before using their guns against Iraqi targets on the coast. The same conflict saw the first use of submarine-launched cruise missiles when the Los Angeles-class attack submarine Louisville fired Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles into Iraq from the Red Sea.
Currently, the United States is looking into Non-Line-of-Sight Launch Systems, which would fire either Precision Attack Munitions or Loitering Attack Munitions; however the latter program has been cancelled due to rising costs and poor test performance, while the Precision Attack Missile lacks the minimum range to meet the USMC requirement of 41.3 nautical miles (76.5 km).
Although ship-fired missiles can provide support for shore-based units, they are susceptible to interception by anti-missile systems such as the Aegis Combat System and MIM-104 Patriot system developed by the United States and used by NATO nations. These systems were designed to track and destroy both artillery shells and missiles. The first widely reported instances of such systems working came in 1991 when the US Patriot and Royal Navy Sea Dart missile system successfully intercepted and destroyed Iraqi Scud and Silkworm missiles.
Naval gunfire has been used intermittently since the end of the Second World War. By and large, the guns are small caliber guns found on modern frigates, cruisers, destroyers. The reason the Iowa-class battleships were maintained and used is because 16-inch (410 mm) guns were considered more effective.
In the 1960s, following a requirement established by Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) for a new gun capable of firing semi-active laser guided projectiles (SAL GP), the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division worked on the Major Caliber Lightweight Gun (MCLWG) program, testing capability of destroyer-sized ships to provide shore bombardment support with the range previously available from decommissioned cruisers. The 8"/55 caliber Mark 71 gun, a single gun version of the 8"/55 Mark 16 caliber gun was mounted aboard the USS Hull (DD-945). However, after at-sea technical evaluation in 1975 and operational testing that followed through 1976, The Operational Test and Evaluation Force determined inaccuracy made the gun operationally unsuitable. The lightweight 8"/55 was concluded to be no more effective than the 5"/54 with Rocket Assisted Projectiles. Program funding was terminated in 1978.
In the 1980s, such guns were used by US destroyers during the Lebanese Civil War to shell positions for the Multinational Force in Lebanon operating on the ground. Guns were also used by the Royal Navy in the Falklands War to support British forces during the operations to recapture the islands from the Argentinians. For example, the Type 42 destroyer HMS Cardiff was required to fire at enemy positions on the islands with her 4.5-inch gun. In one engagement she fired 277 high-explosive rounds, although later problems with the gun prevented continual use. Ship-based gunfire was also used during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 to neutralize Iranian gun emplacements on oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. Although the smaller caliber guns are effective in combat, larger caliber guns can be employed for psychological warfare purposes, and have compelled the surrender of enemy combatants during combat operations due to a sense of overwhelming firepower. One of the most recent examples of this was the bombardment of Iraqi shore defenses by the battleships Missouri and Wisconsin in the Persian Gulf War. The shelling proved to be so devastating that when the latter battleship returned to resume shelling the island, the enemy troops surrendered to her Pioneer UAV launched to spot for the battleships' guns rather than face another round of heavy naval artillery support.
The navy has looked into creating precision guided artillery rounds for use with the current fleet of cruisers and destroyers. The most recent attempt to modify the guns for longer range came with the Advanced Gun System mounts that were to be installed aboard the Zumwalt-class destroyers, although the navy has been involved in the Long Range Land Attack Projectile and Ballistic Trajectory Extended Range Munition projects for over 10 years in an effort to develop Extended Range Guided Munitions.
In addition to funding research into various extended range munitions, the navy is also working on developing railguns for use with the fleet at some point in the future. The United States Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division demonstrated an 8 MJ rail gun firing 3.2 kilogram (slightly more than 7 pounds) projectiles in October 2006 as a prototype of a 64 MJ weapon to be deployed aboard navy warships. The main problem the navy has had with implementing a railgun cannon system is that the guns wear out due to the immense heat produced by firing. Such weapons are expected to be powerful enough to do a little more damage than a BGM-109 Tomahawk missile at a fraction of the projectile cost. Since then, BAE Systems has delivered a 32 MJ prototype to the Navy. On January 31, 2008, the US Navy tested a magnetic railgun; it fired a shell at 2520 m/s using 10.64 megajoules of energy. Its expected performance is over 5800 m/s muzzle velocity, accurate enough to hit a 5-meter target from 200 nmi (370 km) away while shooting at 10 shots per minute. It is expected to be ready between 2020 and 2025.
Apart from railguns, 16 inch scramjet rounds with ranges of up to 400 nautical miles that have a 9-minute time of flight are being proposed by Pratt and Whitney working with Dr. Dennis Reilly, a plasma physicist with extensive experience with munitions. Alliant Techniques is also developing a ram-jet projectile for 5-inch and 155mm gun. Unfortunately, the navy had no interested sponsor according to both Pratt and Whitney representatives and Dr. Reilly.
Prior to the reduction of ships in the DD(X) destroyer program, it seemed unlikely that the above four conditions would have impeded the current plan to turn Iowa and Wisconsin into museum ships because the navy had expected a sufficient number of DD(X) destroyers to be ready to help fill the NSFS gap by 2018 at the earliest; however, the July 2008 decision by the navy to cancel the DD(X) program would leave the navy without a ship class capable of replacing the two battleships removed from the Naval Vessel Register in March 2006. Although unlikely, the cancellation of the DD(X) destroyer program may result in a reinstatement of Iowa and Wisconsin to the Naval Vessel Register; by law, the navy is required to maintain two battleships on the register until the navy certifies that it has within its fleet the operation NSFS capability that can meet or exceed that provided by the battleships, and with the Extended Range Guided Munitions program already cancelled in March 2008 and DD(X) destroyer program essentially cancelled in July 2008 the navy does not appear to have met its needed criteria for battleship removal. James T. Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps has said that missiles fired from the Littoral combat ship could fulfill the USMC needs for NSFS. This would not be the current NLOS-LS program as the range of the PAM missile at 22 miles (35 km) falls short of the threshold requirement for NSFS of 41 miles (66 km) and the number of CLUs the current LCS designs can carry in a ready to fire configuration is also short of the required volume of fire. The Loitering Attack Missile could have matched the required range, but it was cancelled in 2011 and the LCS would still have fallen short in terms of rounds ready to fire.
On September 15, 2015, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, while giving a speech on defense on board the battleship, USS Iowa (BB-61) in San Pedro, California, briefly remarked in having interest in recommissioning the Iowa-class battleships.
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