Skip to main content

Big Guns

May 2024
1min read


Talking about battleships in his interview, Captain Beach misses the point that one of the battleship’s greatest assets is its guns. He is correct about range but ignores the number of rounds carried for the guns as opposed to missiles. A ship is only as good as its station-keeping abilities, and limiting its number of rounds surely affects that ability.

A Cruise missile costs far more than a sixteen-inch round, and I am left with doubts about the cost effectiveness of interdicting fire against an isolated incident involving, say, a company of men and three or four tanks raiding an outpost. I would also bet my bottom dollar that a sixteen-inch shell not only carries more conventional explosives than a Cruise missile, but within its range, countermeasures against that incoming round are virtually impossible, whereas the Cruise can get hit.

Finally Beach forgets the one great advantage of the sixteen-inch shell. It can be armor-piercing and will penetrate places the builders and shooters of Cruise missiles only dream of. Anyone who lias seen the onshore destruction caused by the big gun will concur. I wonder how Iwo Jima would have gone had it undergone a Cruise bombardment and how many of those deep bunkers that sixteen-inch guns took out would have been functioning at H hour.



Captain Beach replies : Where Mr. Pearson and I disagree is in the relative importance of range. As a basic principle, a warship whose weapons can’t reach the enemy is helpless. Thus our battleships at Pearl Harbor, and the Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya two days later, were sitting ducks to their attackers. Their great guns were useless. Surface warships today must have long-range, self-propelled weapons with electronic guidance. Cruise missiles for attack and antimissile missiles for battle-group defense, all under computer control. Guns they may have as well, but a battle will be fought at a range of hundreds of miles and will be all over before any guns can be fired.

At Iwo Jima, nearly forty years ago, our fourteen- and sixteen-inch guns did yeoman service, and our Marines blessed the battleships that carried them. But the Cruise missile as we know it today did not exist. If the Japanese defenders had had 1980-type Cruise missiles, our ships would have been under fire for a whole day before they could have gotten within gun range, and, to say the least, the attack on Iwo Jima would have been very differently conducted.

In any event, we are fortunate indeed that the four Iowa -class battleships, Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri , and Wisconsin , are big enough and versatile enough to support both missiles and guns. The United States is very lucky to have them available, now that the need is here, and it is good to have them to put back into service. Pearson is clearly a lover of great ships, as I am, and obviously hopes, as I do, that the necessary modifications will not spoil their looks.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate