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One BIG American boi: The USS Iowa

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Lets go back in time, shall we? The year is 1940, and Europe is enveloped in war. It is hell on earth, where the rain is an endless stream of death rather than nourishing water and governments oppress their citizens. Europe is a war zone, one that is far bigger than ever thought possible. In America, the effects of this hell are being felt, the country producing war material on a scale never seen before, lifting the economy out of the Great Depression and restarting the economy. Among this new military material is the base for the single largest warship ever conceived. A warship that was never supposed to be put into combat, but as a deterrent against invading or attacking America. These assumptions are based on America's political landscape at the time, which was FIRMLY against war. Well, that was until December 7th, 1941. The Pearl Harbor Attack changed everything. The destruction of so many USN ships, particularly the USS Arizona, changed everything. All of a sudden, this nation that was so vehemently opposed to war switched their stance on a dime. America declared war 2 days later, and this massive battleship was destined for war. I am, of course, referring to the USS Iowa, one of the single most powerful ships ever created.

What is it?

Present tense because it is not at the bottom of the ocean. The USS Iowa is the lead ship of the Iowa-class battleships built for the USN. It is considered the single most powerful battleship afloat and it holds that distinction to this day. What makes the Iowa special is that it's the literal definition of excess on water. It has an excessive amount of armour, even for its size, overly big main battery, excessive deck armour, excessive belt, excessive amount of secondaries, AA guns and... I've lost already haven't I? Well, it looks like I need to do a crash course on battleships. So let's go over the basics shall we?

The basics of warship design

This is actually more difficult than you think. Why? Well, a warship needs certain things that a normal ship doesn't, which demands that some internal hull space must be dedicated to these things. The first of these is the Citadel, which houses the most important parts of the ship; namely the engine and the ammunition. It is always receives the heaviest armour, just due to the importance of the components housed within. There are at least 2 layers of armour on all sides of the citadel, each one spaced slightly to reduce shell efficiency. Depending on the size of the ship and its intended role, the citadel's overall protection would vary, but it is always the most well protected part of the ship.

Another aspect of warship design are the main battery turrets, which are not bolted down into the ship. Instead, massive slots have to be built into the ship's hull into which the turrets can be laid. This can be seen in the diagram, where the grey circles are the slots for the turrets. So this also took up a lot of space in the hull, as there needed to be space for the shells and their firing mechanism. What is the firing mechanism? Well, they put the shells in the guns, put explosives behind the shells, put into the barrels and blew up the explosives. Why not.

There are many more important parts of a warship, but I want to talk about a part called the Superstructure. What is it? To put it simply, it is the battleship's control centre. It is the cityscape between the main battery turrets of the warship and serves as the command and control centre of the warship. There are many different parts to the superstructure, but there are a few I want to focus on.

First is the Bridge, which is a room near the front of the superstructure from where the ship's commanding officer commands the ship. Usually, there are many sailors in the bridge who help the commanding officer to do everything, from steering the ship to keeping lookout for anything. Without a Bridge, a warship is helpless.

Finally, there are the fire control systems. These are fairly self-explanatory, they are the systems that aid the gunners in aiming and firing the main weapons of the battleship. This is necessary as the gunners inside the main battery turrets often cannot see where they are aiming. So without a fire control system, well, they can't hit anything.

In terms of armour, the superstructure gets the short end of the stick. I really mean it, because the superstructure is not well protected at ALL. The armour on the superstructure is hopeless, often not exceeding 20mm on many warships, By any measure, the superstructure is horribly vulnerable, but there really isn't much designers can do about it. The simple fact is that a warship needs a superstructure to do anything or else you just have a couple thousand tons worth of paperweight. The superstructure controls the entire vessel, meaning there is no way for anything to happen without it.

Those are the basics of warship design, so let's go to the specifics of the Iowa.

Iowa's armour

This ship is famous for having gargantuan amounts of armour. But, in truth, it was sub par in some areas when compared to other ships of the time. Its not like it was bad, but it was not perfect. This was due to the philosophy of the Iowa's armour, which was called an All-or-Nothing armour scheme. This basically means that sections of the ship receive either a simply stupid amount of armour, or absolutely none at all. This left some sections of the ship incredibly vulnerable, but that was intended. The parts of the ship that had noticeably less armour are the extremities of the ship and the superstructure. The parts that had the most armour was the armour that surrounds the citadel.

But even this wasn't as good as most people think. Many people believe that the Iowa was invincible, but it had a very noticeable weakness. This weakness was not actually intentional, but it was exploitable. The simple fact was that the horizontal belt armour was sub par when compared to other similar battleships of the time. The bulkheads were a staggering 287mm thick, but the belt was only 307mm. This may seem like an odd statement, but other battleships of the time had significantly more armour, even the smaller ones. The German battleship Bismarck had 320mm of belt armour, despite being 10,000 tons lighter than the Iowa at maximum load. This really highlights the weak belt of the Iowa, which translates to what many naval experts call a weak horizontal defence. If you shoot at the Iowa's side, you are very likely to severly damage it, as this weakness was never adressed, because it had many other strengths that made up for it.

The Iowa's guns

These were great. They were very powerful and long range. The guns are a 406mm size and they are a huge 50 calibre. This means that the length of the gun barrel is 50 times the diameter of the shell, meaning that the gun barrel of the Iowa is about 20 meters long. Furthermore, the muzzle velocity of the shells(the speed at which the shells are travelling when they leave the gun barrel) is a simply unbelievable 760-820m/s, depending on the shell that was used. They also had an incredible firing range of almost 40km, meaning that at max range, nobody on the ship could see their target due to the fact that it was quite literally beyond the horizon. But really, even this wasn't what set the Iowa apart.

What set these guns apart were types of shells they were able to fire. It carried your typical AP (Armour-Piercing) and HC (a very explosive) shells to battle, meant for ship-to-ship combat and shore bombardment respectively. But it also carried a shell which was designated as "nuclear." Yes, some shells on the Iowa carried a nuclear payload, further increasing its destructive potential. This, as far as I am aware, is the only warship that could fire a nuclear payload from its main battery, because other classes of ships were able to fire nuclear missiles, but not nuclear main battery shells. This makes the guns on the Iowa truly one of a kind.

The operational and firing range of the ship

This is something very important, as this dictated where the ship could go, how long it would. take to get there, and whether or not it could do anything when it got there. The Iowa had an operational range of about 15 thousand nautical miles, or roughly 27 thousand km, at speed of 15 knots, roughly 17mph. Kinda slow, yes, but it is also a 60,000 ton battleship, so I am going to cut it some slack. Plus it did have a maximum speed of around 33 knots, or 38 mph, which is pretty great when considering how giant the damn thing is. But I have no good way of judging its operational range because, well, how can I? The range is completely dependent on the fuel and speed the ship is travelling at. So there is no way to judge the Iowa's operational range, but its speed? Sure, that can be judged.

What I can judge is the firing range, and I think it is amazing. It is almost 40km, which is a distance so great, at maximum range, the Iowa cannot actually see the target, because it is hidden by the curvature of the Earth. That can be a bad thing though. I mean, think about it. If you can't see your target from your firing position, how do you know you have hit it? You would be guessing where to aim and then praying that your shot was a good one. To combat this problem, the Iowa employed the use of a spotter plane, which is essentially a small plane that can be launched of a catapult that helps the ship aim. There is always the risk it will be shot down of course, but overall, it is an excellent method of combating the Iowa's range problem.

Secondary weapons

The Iowa did not rely solely on its 406mm main battery, that would be stupid. It also carried 20 127mm guns that served as it's secondary guns. For its anti-aircraft(or AA) guns, the Iowa carried 80 40mm Bofors guns and 49 20mm Oerlikon guns. These were deadly. The Bofors 40mm was one of the most feared guns by the Axis Powers, and here the Iowa was, just casually carrying 80 of them. And the Oerlikon 20mm guns was actually based on a German AA gun design, so its quality and effectiveness was assured. This combination made the Iowa one of the deadliest AA vessels of its time, even if that wasn't the primary purpose of the ship. This ship carried some simply unbelievable AA power, and was feared by many.

Service History

It had a long and successful service life, but it did need some refits to not be rendered obsolete. It first served in World War II, where it served as the flagship of the USN's BatDiv7, short for Battleship Division 7. During this time, the Iowa was tasked mostly with bombarding small islands or providing AA screening for the USN's aircraft. It was barely damaged throughout these campaigns, until it got caught in a typhoon. The typhoon did significant damage to the ship, forcing her to return to USA for repairs and a small update that saw the bridge receive additional protection and the firing systems receiving minor upgrades. After that, she joined the USN in the bombardment of Japan, where she was tasked with supporting carrier operations and air strikes, and the occasional shelling of cities. Following. Japan's surrender, she was part of the occupation force, overseeing the surrender of the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal and receiving many homebound GI's and POW's, taking them back to the US.

After WW2, she was modernised slightly, losing some of her AA guns while getting significantly improved radar. She then took part in some live fire exercises, where she sank the old USS Nevada. When the Korean War broke out, Iowa was used to shell North Korean positions and supply lines. During the entire campaign, as far as I can tell, she was used just to shell certain strategic targets and North Korean cities. Following the Korean War, she took part in some small NATO exercises, and then was decommissioned in 1958, joining The Atlantic Reserve Fleet.

She was reactivated in 1982, and after some shakedowns, she was used for many NATO exercises. When the Gulf War broke out, the US intervened, and Iowa spent the entire war escorting Kuwaiti munitions ships. That is all I am going to say about the Gulf War, as we are all aware of what the US did and how it shaped the Middle East. After this, she was decommissioned, but not before one major incident.

1989 turret explosion

On the 19th of April, 1989, Iowa's Number 2 main battery turret suddenly exploded, killing 47 crewmen inside the turret. Before the damage could become catastrophic, a crewman quickly flooded the No.2 powder keg, saving the Iowa. The explosion was later determined to be an accident, rather than an intentional act of sabotage by sailor Clayton Hartwig, which was the initial suspicion. What had actually happened was a problem with the storage of the gunpowder. This particular type of powder released a type of gas called ether gas, which was incredibly flammable. Upon realising this, Admiral Frank Kelso publicly apologised to Hartwig's family, and the Iowa's captain, Fred Moosally, was publicly chastised for his terrible handling of the situation. The event also made the navy revise it's powder handling procedures, and remains one of the worst peacetime incidents in USN history.

Iowa's Final days

Following the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, the government reconsidered the deployment of battleships, and deemed them uneconomical. This meant that the Iowa was retired in 1990, and following a bunch of treaties from the 1990s and the 2000s, the Iowa was permanently retired from service. Then, in the late 200s and early 2010s, a proposal was submitted to turn the Iowa into a museum ship, which eventually went through, and the Iowa is now a museum ship stationed in the Port of Los Angeles.

Why was it used so defensively?

The reason for this is the same reason why the Iowa was retired. The running costs were obscenely high. Battleships are expensive, and they take forever to build and cost even more to maintain properly. Modernisation costs are also greater on a battleship than any other type of ship, so in general, they are an investment that most don't as worth it. They are also a liability, because the economic costs of replacing a sunken battleship are astronomical, not to mention the very public nature of their death, which, especially in a war, can destroy morale among troops.

There is also another problem with battleships these days. They are sort of obsolete. Most cruisers and destroyers these days can fire very long-range missiles which can tear through a battleship with ease and have far superior range. Given the size and slow speed of a battleship, I think it is no secret why it would be the first target for an enemy, making them even more of a liability. So really, there is no need for any country to have a battleship, unless they want to broadcast their stupidity to the world.

Why is the Iowa so famous?

Because it is the Iowa, one of the largest warships ever built and the largest afloat today. It is fitted with the most powerful guns ever put on a battleship or any ship in general. It is the Iowa, the most powerful battleship ever put to sea. I don't think I need to explain more than that. The Iowa deserves its fame, the end.

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