November 20, 1990|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON — Washington. THE NAVY and its battleships are like those starry-eyed though discordant couples who marry and divorce, immediately take to courting each other again, remarry and soon after split.

The nautical counterpart of the matrimonial cycle is now in the break-up stage, with the Navy telling Congress that all four of the surviving relics of the World War II battleship fleet may soon be back in mothballs. The reason, says the Navy, is that it now finds that ships are too costly to operate, though the four behemoths were returned to service within the past eight years at refurbishment costs of some $400 million apiece. The annual cost of operating each of them is nearly $60 million.

Already decommissioned is the ill-fated battleship Iowa, on which 47 crewmen died in a gunnery accident last year. The New Jersey is scheduled to go out of service in February. The Middle East crisis has apparently provided reprieves for the Wisconsin, which is on duty there, and the Missouri, which is on the way. But they, too, are apparently slated for early retirement.

The survival of these seagoing relics is a testimonial to the hypnotic power of naval tradition and the human preference for disallowing unpleasant facts that clash with congenial beliefs. For the nostalgic wing of the Navy, the battleships provide unexcelled platforms for pomp and pageantry. While the thrust of modern military technology is toward smaller, faster and stealthier, the romantic appeal of the great ships has repeatedly triumphed over military rationality.

Though of dubious war-making value, the battleships are nonetheless impressive structures of naval architecture, nearly 900 feet in length, 18 stories high, 108 feet wide, studded with nine 16-inch guns and scores of smaller weapons, including the latest missiles.

The old Navy relishes tales of the battleships' firepower, but ignores the fact that these geriatric ships do not have the accuracy of their youth and, in any case, the guns can't reach more than 20 miles or so inland. Their last shots fired in anger were in 1983, when the New Jersey let loose with 11 1,900-pound shells at dimly perceived targets in the hills of Lebanon, gouging craters the size of football fields. If there was any military effect to this devastation, it went undetected.

At various times since retiring from World War II, one or another of the four vessels saw brief service in Korea and Vietnam before returning to storage. But it was only under the Reagan rearmament program that all were recommissioned and refurbished, amid a great many extravagant claims. In recommissioning the New Jersey in 1982, Mr. Reagan declared, ''I doubt if there is a better example of the cost-consciousness of this administration than the magnificent ship that we are recommissioning today.'' And Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., a former secretary of the Navy, said the restored battleship ''is going to be the crown jewel in the fleet.'' He forecast that Navy personnel would be ''lined up with requests to man it.''

But a recent inquiry by the General Accounting Office, the investigative service for Congress, found the battleships are expensive to operate relative to other naval vessels, and that they're so antiquated that the cream of the Navy shuns them. Training is lax, morale is low and disciplinary problems are high on these ships, the GAO reported, adding that they should all be taken out of service, barring some unforeseen need in the Gulf crisis.

Removal from service seems to be imminent. But that doesn't mean we've seen the last of the battleships. As their military value declines, their nostalgia rating rises. A return from mothballs cannot be ruled out.

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