Navy scuttles Arsenal Ship program Maryland companies competed to build innovative vessel

'Incompetent advocacy'

Decision attributed to lack of funds for project's 'next phase'

October 25, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Navy has scuttled the Arsenal Ship program, the missile-bristling robot ship that several Maryland companies were competing to build.

"Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton has reluctantly determined that insufficient funding exists to continue the next phase of the program," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Denise Shorey said yesterday.

The Arsenal Ship was touted as a revolutionary concept because of its concentration of firepower -- 500 missile launchers crammed onto one platform -- and its almost fully automated, remote-controlled operation. A pilot or soldier could summon a warhead with a simple radioed command.

The vessel would be relatively cheap -- $500 million apiece, compared with $5 billion for an aircraft carrier -- and the Navy once envisioned a $3 billion fleet of six.

Three industry teams were competing to be picked in January to build a prototype. Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda led one team, and Northrop Grumman's Electronic Sensors & Systems Division in Linthicum led a team with four smaller Maryland companies as partners.

The third team was led by General Dynamics of Falls Church, Va.

Last January, the government awarded each team $15 million to develop its concept.

The Arsenal Ship's only vocal supporter in Congress, Democratic Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, yesterday tossed some metaphorical warheads of his own at Navy brass for what he said was "incompetent advocacy" of the program.

"I say this with deep regret, but the Navy did an awful job of communicating the importance of this program and the reason for the arsenal concept," said McHale, a Marine reservist who said he saw the need for such a weapon as one of the first troops in Saudi Arabia before Operation Desert Storm.

McHale added that Dalton called him to say that he had tried and failed to find money to keep the program alive.

As the Navy spokeswoman put it, "The Navy has reviewed and prioritized its programs and has determined that it is not possible to redistribute money from other areas to sustain" the Arsenal Ship.

The program has been on the ropes since last month, when Congress passed a defense budget providing only $35 million for the Arsenal Ship next year. The Navy had said it needed a minimum of $85 million.

The Arsenal Ship got a lot of publicity as the pet project of the late Adm. Mike Boorda, the former chief of naval operations. After Boorda's suicide last year, many observers felt that the Navy backed away from the Arsenal Ship.

McHale said that some in the upper ranks "foolishly" feared that the Arsenal Ship would draw money from other shipbuilding programs.

Even a summer letter from the assistant secretary of the Navy to congressional leaders outlining the need for funding struck some as a weak afterthought.

"You have to wonder whether a lot of that was for show so they would not be the ones to blame for killing the program," said a congressional staffer who asked not to be identified. "The Navy can point to Congress' funding decision, and Congress can say they didn't kill it, they just cut money. So no one is the bad guy for killing off Boorda's plans."

Members of Congress began attacking the program in February, and the Navy responded by reorganizing it. Instead of being dedicated to the single mission, the Arsenal Ship was recast as a technology test-bed that would prove concepts for the future fleet.

The Navy even renamed it the Maritime Fire Support Demonstrator, a move that seemed to cloud the issue and to confuse some in Congress. The program office even continued to answer the telephone by saying, "Arsenal Ship."

Despite those early signs of trouble, contractors continued to view the job as a good opportunity to get in line for the Navy's next generation of warships.

Several of the contractors, reached yesterday, declined to comment because they had not been officially notified of the cancellation.

Shorey, the Navy spokeswoman, said that even the truncated program "provided a good return on investment." One benefit she cited was the unusual -- and probably precedent-setting -- nature of the industry teams bidding on the work.

Each was led by a big systems integrator, with shipyards playing a secondary role.

She also said that the Navy remains committed to developing the technology represented by the Arsenal Ship: linking various parts of the military on one weapons system, improving ship survivability, reducing radar signature and using automation to reduce crew size.

McHale said the service had better be committed to one more aspect of the Arsenal Ship: its mission of supporting land troops during the early stages of a conflict, when other weapons haven't arrived and troops are most vulnerable.

"I think there will be another day where a platform such as the Arsenal Ship will by necessity be once again considered, because the mission requirement has not been met," McHale said. "We'll have to revisit the issue."

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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