Under the gun of budget cuts, Navy learns to refurbish and do more with less

October 05, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS CARON -- Trying to make the most of a rare stopover by a four-star admiral, Cmdr. Peter D. Squicciarini scrambled from one deck to another on this guided-missile destroyer, leading his guest from the wardroom to the bridge to the combat center to the engine room and six other stops in just under 50 minutes.

With perspiration collecting on his brow, the former Severna Park resident found a brief respite in one of the coolest areas of the ship. He ushered Adm. Henry H. Mauz Jr., commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, onto a narrow catwalk inside an air-conditioned chamber and invited him to inspect the ship's Tomahawk cruise missiles.

"This is the future weapon of choice," Admiral Mauz declared as he touched the white waffle-like casing of a missile battery, a key element in the Navy's new strategic focus on meeting regional challenges.

What seemed to impress the admiral was that the Caron -- designed mainly to kill Soviet nuclear submarines when commissioned in 1977 -- had emerged from an overhaul in 1990 with state-of-the-art electronic gadgetry and long-range weapons capable of attacking land targets and ships. A Cold War-era MK-112 anti-submarine rocket system had given way to the Tomahawk, the precision-guided weapon used effectively last year in daylight strikes against Baghdad.

As the Navy grapples with tighter budgets and the very real prospect of deeper cuts over the next five years, Commander Squicciarini and others are eagerly touting the value of refurbished ships like the Caron, which they say will remain a "major part" of the Navy's surface combatant force well into the 21st century.

But the Navy's success in adapting existing hardware to a world without a Soviet menace threatens to undercut its case to Congress for expensive new ships and aircraft. By upgrading ships and munitions, modifying F-14A Tomcats for bombing missions and flying S-3B Viking submarine hunters as airborne tankers, the Navy is demonstrating its ability to counter new threats at a relatively low cost to taxpayers.

A custom-made F-14A bomb rack, designed to withstand repeated hard landings on a carrier flight deck, costs $13,000, Navy officials said. By comparison, the next generation of better equipped, multirole fighters is now estimated to cost between $55 million to $75 million per plane, the Congressional Research Service reported last month.

"When we were engaged head to head with the Soviets, the prospect of a serious air attack on our battle groups was very high and a fixed proportion of aircraft was dedicated for fleet air defense," said John M. Collins, CRS senior defense analyst. "Now the mix of aircraft on board ought to change. . . ."

Under current Bush administration plans to reduce the military to a smaller "base force," the Navy would cut its carrier fleet by 1997 from its current level of 14 ships to 12, not including a permanent training carrier, and active air wings from 13 to 11.

But this plan calls for the Navy, Marines and Air Force to replace their inventory of 5,300 tactical combat aircraft with stealthier, high-tech planes whose total development and production costs could exceed $320 billion over the next 40 years. The Navy also wants to build a $4.9 billion, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1995 to replace an older ship.

The Navy's quest for new hardware, backed by President Bush, has drawn sharp criticism from Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats, who believe smaller number of carriers and air wings could meet post-Cold War security needs with acceptable risks.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) also has forecast that Navy budgets would have to grow as much as 7.5 percent a year after 1996 to cover planned purchases of ships and aircraft, posing the worst long-term budgetary problem of any military service.

Defense analysts at the Brookings Institution and other research groups have recommended cutting the Navy to six carriers, although Sen. Sam Nunn, of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Clinton and other Democrats contend that a force of 10 or 11 carriers would suffice.

The CBO has reported that naval firepower may still increase because the capacity of the surface fleet to carry Tomahawks and other missiles should continue to improve, especially with wider use of the MK-41 vertical launch system -- the launchers now aboard this destroyer.

In Congress, members of both parties also want to reassess the roles and missions performed by each military service next year, saying that redundancies in Air Force and Navy tactical air power, for example, are not cost-effective. Mr. Nunn already has suggested that long-range bombing could be performed exclusively by the Air Force -- a move that would threaten the size of the carrier force -- and airborne electronic jamming done by the Navy.

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