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Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Losing the battleships


U.S. Marines
U.S. Navy

(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. Marines, while fighting valiantly in Iraq, are on the verge of serious defeat on Capitol Hill. A Senate-House conference on the Armed Services authorization bill convening this week is considering turning the Navy's last two battleships, the Iowa and Wisconsin, into museums. Marine officers fear that deprives them of vital fire support in an uncertain future.

Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the current commandant of the Marine Corps, testified on April 1, 2003, that loss of naval surface fire support from battleships would place his troops "at considerable risk." On July 29 this year, Hagee asserted: "Our aviation is really quite good, but it can, in fact, be weathered." Nevertheless, Marine leaders have given up a public fight for fear of alienating Navy colleagues.

The Navy high command is determined to get rid of the battleships, relying for support on an expensive new destroyer at least 10 years in the future. This is how Washington works. Defense contractors, Pentagon bureaucrats, congressional staffers and career-minded officers make this decision that may ultimately be paid for by Marine and Army infantrymen.

Marine desire to reactivate the Iowa and Wisconsin runs counter to the DD(X) destroyer of the future. It will not be ready before 2015, costing between $4.7 billion and $7 billion. Keeping the battleships in reserve costs only $250,000 a year, with reactivation estimated at $500 million (taking six months to a year) and full modernization more than $1.5 billion (less than two years).

On the modernized battleships, 18 big (16-inch) guns could fire 460 projectiles in nine minutes and take out hardened targets in North Korea. In contrast, the DD(X) will fire only 70 long-range attack projectiles at $1 million a minute. Therefore, the new destroyer will rely on conventional 155-millimeter rounds that Marines say cannot reach the shore. Former longtime National Security Council staffer William L. Stearman, now executive director of the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association, told me, "In short, this enormously expensive ship cannot fulfill its primary mission: provide naval surface fire support for the Marine Corps."

The Navy's anti-battleship bias began December 7, 1941, when the Japanese surprise attack destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battleships. Although admirals in 1946 vowed never to bring back battleships, they served effectively in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars. Congressional pressure brought the USS New Jersey to Vietnam for six months, leading the Marine commandant, Gen. Leonard Chapman, to conclude, "Thousands of American lives were saved." The Marines calculated that 80 percent of 1,067 U.S. planes lost in Vietnam could have been saved had battleships fought the entire war.

The admirals moved to get rid of battleships forever when Republican Rep. Richard Pombo proposed sending the USS Iowa to Stockton, California, as a museum. The Navy supports that as well as making the USS Wisconsin a museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and repealing the existing requirement to keep two battleships in reserve.

The Navy's anti-battleship campaign began March 15 when Adm. Charles Hamilton briefed the House Armed Forces Committee. It is no coincidence that Hamilton has been the Navy's point man promoting DD(X).

Never has it been clearer how the military-industrial complex functions. Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics and BAE Systems are mobilized behind DD(X) and against battleships. Congressional staffers, eyeing a future in the Pentagon or the armaments industry, know the way to future advancement is not to be pro-battleship.

"The Marine Corps supports the strategic purpose of reactivating two battleships," said a November 19, 2004, General Accounting Office report. Since then, current Marine leaders have adhered to the naval position and walked away from boosting battleships, but not retired Marines. Gen. P.X. Kelley, the renowned former commandant, said in a June statement: "I would hate to see a premature demise of the battleships . . . without a suitable replacement on station. In my personal experience in combat, the battleship is the most effective naval fire support platform in the history of naval warfare."

The Army is an interested but silent listener to this debate. Its generals have failed in their fight over stressing tube artillery. If Congress now turns the last battleships into museums, the losers will be the grunts who carry rifles.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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