Saddam Hussein Thought He Knew How to Sink U.S. Battleships

James Holmes

Key point: This could have worked, but only under the most ideal conditions.

Could Saddam Hussein’s armed forces have sunk a U.S. Navy battleship?

That might seem like a question destined to launch an excursion into alt-history, but it was far from hypothetical to the 3,200 or so crewmen of the battleships USS Wisconsin and Missouri who squared off against Iraq in 1991. It was daily life, especially when they closed with hostile shorelines to render naval gunfire support to forces ashore—and thus came within striking reach of Iraqi defenses.

My answer: yes.

In the abstract. Under ideal conditions.

If you ripped such an engagement out of its actual operational context, in other words, then yes, it was technically possible for Iraqi airmen or rocketeers to sink a dreadnought. One vessel can scarcely stand against the combined might of a nation. Yet sundering could-have-been events from reality reveals little of value. Iraqi prospects were farfetched when viewed in the real-world context of war in the Persian Gulf. Focusing that much martial throw weight against one surface combatant at the right time and place would have strained Iraqi capability—even if Saddam & Co. had made assaulting the American ironclads their uppermost priority.

But first the hypotheticals. Events in the Gulf during the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran waged a brutal struggle for dominion, bore grim witness to the power of mine and missile warfare. During the 1987-1988 “tanker war,” the U.S. Navy organized convoys for Kuwaiti merchantmen reflagged under the Stars and Stripes. While they guarded against missile attack, escort ships took to trailing behind the tankers they were protecting, simply because the tankers’ massive hulls could withstand the blast from a sea mine far better than flimsily armored warships could. Protectors became the protected.

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