WASHINGTON — In an indication that equipment failure is no longer considered a prime suspect in the April explosion aboard the battleship Iowa, the Navy has partially lifted its ban on the firing of the unique 16-inch guns aboard the nation's four battleships, sources said Tuesday.
The firing moratorium, imposed a day after a blast ripped through a 16-inch gun turret aboard the Iowa April 19, has been modified to permit the use of the guns in wartime, for self-defense and during operations designed to send political signals to foreign nations, according to Navy officials.
A naval commander also would be permitted to order firing of the 16-inch guns at special training exercises for a crew being sent on a potentially hazardous operation overseas.
The skippers of the nation's four battleships--the only warships equipped with the massive, 1940s-vintage guns--received word of the new guidelines over the weekend. Chief of Naval Operations Carlisle A. H. Trost issued the new orders before results of the Navy's investigation of the Iowa blast, which killed 47 sailors, reached senior leaders at the Pentagon.
That probe has focused on human factors as the likeliest causes of the explosion, rather than on structural flaws that might pose continuing danger, knowledgeable defense officials said. Rear Adm. Richard D. Milligan is directing that investigation, the findings of which were called "inconclusive" by one knowledgeable Pentagon official. Suicide by a member of the gun crew is being considered as one possible cause.
During the investigation, Navy officials have emphasized the guns' long record of firing without incident.
In all, Iowa-class battleships have fired more than 13,000 16-inch rounds safely since they were first commissioned in the 1940s. The Iowa alone had fired 3,500 rounds without incident. Similar explosions, involving the Navy's 8-inch and 14-inch guns, occurred in 1972 aboard the heavy cruiser Newport News and in 1943 aboard the battleship Mississippi. But neither of those guns remain in use.
The partial lifting of the firing ban came less than a week after the Iowa left its home port in Norfolk, Va., for a deployment in the Mediterranean Sea.
One knowledgeable Navy official said the partial lifting of the firing ban also would send the message to would-be aggressors in that area--including Libya--that the Iowa is not defenseless and that it can project American might if needed. The 16-inch guns can hurl shells 23 miles.
"The chief of naval operations wanted to make it clear that even with an investigation under way, if you're attacked, you can defend yourself," said a senior Navy official.