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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
Oh, yes. Remember the reason for doing this. She’s not being brought out to refight the battle of Jutland. We wouldn’t build a ship like this today, but if the Falkland Islands war proved anything, it showed that unarmored ships cannot stand up against direct hits. Now what is a battleship? Let me define it. It’s an outgrowth of the Monitor . The Monitor was perhaps the first battleship, a heavily armored ship that (a) could deliver heavy blows and (b) could receive heavy blows and survive and continue to fight. Eventually she was developed into the Jutland-type battleship, with big guns that could shoot twenty miles and armor able to withstand hits from the guns of other battleships. Now we are entering a new era in warfare, where, instead of having a sixteen-inch gun that will shoot twenty miles, you’ve got a sixteen-inch gun that’ll shoot two hundred miles, and each shell—or missile—has its own little radar guiding it. Back in the old days, you could only hope for a good percentage of hits. Today you can fire a missile, and unless it has been deflected by something that the enemy puts up, you know that missile will hit. On that basis, if you have a ship out there that can’t stand being hit by the missiles the enemy is able to shoot, there’s no way that ship’s going to survive. And that’s what happened to the lightly armored Sheffield . She had something like thirty seconds’ warning that a missile was coming at her. If the Missouri or the New Jersey had been sitting out there, that missile would have exploded against the side. It would hardly have scratched the paint. Or if the missile happened to hit a thinly armored area, it might have penetrated and done a little damage but it wouldn’t have hurt the basic armored citadel of the ship. She would have remained fully operational.
Suppose a missile hits a carrier?
Essentially the same thing would have happened. Our carriers are built with two armored decks, so the missile probably would have gone off between the decks, if it penetrated one at all. Secondly, although a carrier has noarmor on her sides, she has a tremendous amount of compartmentalization; so the missile would have gone in and punctured a couple of compartments and that would have been the end of it. Now, if the missile happened to hit a fuel tank, there would probably be a fire. In the case of the Sheffield , that’s what destroyed it. But since World War II, when several carriers were lost—because of fires, not as a result of the actual damage from hits—our carriers are more conscious of this than anything else. Maybe this is stuff from the previous war, but our carriers can deal with fires. Look at the Enterprise ; some years ago six bombs went off on her decks through some horrible mischance, yet she was fully back in commission within roughly half a day. The Nimitz had a terrible fire when a plane crashed on deck and blew up several other planes. People were killed, but nevertheless that ship, too, was soon back in action.
The big question is aftereffect?
Yes. Our whole damage-control concept is to minimize damage and confine it. And I think we’re pretty good at it. For instance, I don’t think the General Belgrano would have sunk if she had been the ship she was at Pearl Harbor. She took six hours to sink as it was.
It seems strange that they would lose so many men when it took six hours for the ship to sink.
Of course, the Argentines have never been in a war, you know, and you have to learn some things about that. I think if we were to go to war tomorrow, we’d find a lot of stuff we had to learn or relearn too. But we learned in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. At the end of World War II, I know I was ten times more effective as a naval officer than I was at the beginning of the war.
One of the more frequent criticisms you hear about the battleship concerns the enormous number of men required to operate these ships, particularly in view of the shortage of manpower. How would you answer that argument?
They’ve had more people volunteer for the New Jersey than they can use. Many are guys who once served aboard such a ship and they’d like to repeat the experience. In a sense it’s like reliving your youth. But the New Jersey originally had a crew of perhaps two thousand men, and they’re planning to bring her back with a reduced complement of about fifteen hundred. The full complement of a big carrier, including her air wing, is sixty-five hundred men, over four times as many. So I don’t think the number of the crew is the problem. It’s training them. She’s an old ship, though a powerful one. A lot of her machinery is old; so we have to learn how to use it all over again.
How can a battleship like the New Jersey best be used?
Some of the guns have to go, with their turrets and all that machinery. I’d replace them with missile batteries. For example, I’d put a whole bunch of Tomahawk missiles all over the ship. Set them everywhere I could find a place to stick ’em in. A ship that big ought to be able to carry maybe a hundred Tomahawk missiles. She’d be a magnificent armored adjunct to any battle group.