Once thought to be the cornerstone of naval power, the advent of Naval Aviation and the rise of the aircraft carrier in WWII was the beginning of the end for the large-gunned ships of the line. Though battleships saw continuous combat in WWII and Korea, the US Navy was left without an active battleship upon the decommissioning of the USS Wisconsin in March 1958; the first time since 1895.
Most military enthusiasts are familiar with the Reagan administration's 600-ship Navy and the reactivation of the battleships USS Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin. USS New Jersey would be the first to fire her massive 16-inch guns at enemy targets again during the Lebanese Civil War from 1983-1984. USS Missouri and Wisconsin would return to combat in 1991 during the Gulf War. However, USS New Jersey was brought back into active service once before.
Following the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, the loss of US aircraft over Vietnam increased exponentially. The planes that took part in the sustained aerial bombardment campaign were exceptionally vulnerable to sophisticated Soviet-made surface-to-air weapon systems provided to the North Vietnamese.
In an effort to alleviate these air losses while still delivering ordnance payloads, USS New Jersey was brought out of mothballs in April 1968 and modernized for active service in Southeast Asia. The only active battleship in the world, New Jersey, joined the gun line off the Vietnamese coast on September 25. Five days later, she fired her first shots in over 16 years during an engagement against PAVN targets near the DMZ at the 17th parallel. She would go on to fire 14,891 5-inch shells and 5,688 16-inch shells during the war in support of ARVN, US and even Korean troops.
USS New Jersey bombards communist positions near Tuyho, late March 1969 (US Navy photo)
2. M14 Rifle
An evolution of the famed M1 Garand of WWII and Korea, the M14 battle rifle became the standard-issue rifle for the US military in 1959. Firing the 7.62x51mm NATO round, the M14 was meant to streamline logistics efforts by replacing the M1 Garand, M1903 Springfield, M1917 Enfield, M1 carbine, M3 submachine gun, M1928/M1 Thompson submachine gun, and M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle. While the M14 exhibited outstanding accuracy and stopping power in its semi-automatic setting, its full-power cartridge was deemed too powerful for the submachine gun role and its light weight made it difficult to control during automatic fire as a light machine gun.
Though the M14 was replaced by the M16 as the standard-issue rifle in 1968, it found a new role as a precision rifle platform. It served as the basis of the M21 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1968 and M25 Sniper Weapon System introduced in 1991. Though both weapon systems have been largely replaced by the M24 Sniper Weapon System, the M14 lives on as the Mk14 Enhanced Battle Rifle. Introduced in 2002, the Mk14 is a truer reincarnation of the M14. Where the M21 and M25 were restricted to semi-automatic fire, designated as Sniper Weapon Systems and saw more restricted issuance as a result, the Mk14 sees the return of selective fire, the designation as a battle rifle for both designated marksman and close combat roles, and issuance by the Army to two riflemen per infantry platoon deploying to Afghanistan.
Mk14 EBRs in action with the Army in Afghanistan, September 2010 (US Army photo)
3. Guns on fighter planes
With the advent of radar-guided and heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, like the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder, and the new threat of high-altitude, long-range Soviet bombers, US air combat doctrine called for the elimination of gun armament on fighter-interceptor aircraft. Though dedicated attack and fighter aircraft like the A-4 Skyhawk, A-7 Corsair II and the F-8 Crusader retained 20mm cannons for ground attack and close-range aerial combat, interceptors like the F-86D Sabre, F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-4 Phantom II dispensed with any type of gun armament in favor of rockets and missiles. The idea during the late 50s and early 60s was that these types of aircraft would engage in long-range combat without visual contact of their target and, even if they did get close enough to see the enemy that the new Sidewinder missile would be able to dispense with a hostile fighter with ease.
This idea proved to be fatal for pilots over the skies of Vietnam. For Phantom II pilots in particular, who escorted bomber flights over North Vietnam, the lack of a gun often left them without offensive options during a dogfight. Marine Corps General recalled, "Everyone in RF-4s wished we had a gun on the aircraft." As any Top Gun fan can tell you, the American air-to-air kill ratio in Korea was 12:1. According to the US Naval Institute, the Navy's kill ratio in Vietnam was just 2.5:1. The drop in kill ratio was attributed to poor missile accuracy at just 10% and lack of dogfighting skills. The latter resulted in the creation of TOPGUN while the former resulted in the addition of an external gun pod to the Phantom II. An internally mounted gun was incorporated on the later F-4E models.
A USAF F-4D Phantom II equipped with a 20mm gun pod mounted centerline with the fuselage (US Air Force photo)
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