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US Navy Facing Changed Mission Fleet's Size Will Shrink from 565 Vessels at Present to 410 to 425 in the Next Decade

Article excerpt

NOT since 1949, when the United States Navy made aircraft carriers and submarines the mainstay of the fleet, has the Senior Service faced as daunting a decision as it currently does.

In the next two years, the Navy must set the mix of ships it will sail on the world's oceans well into the next century. By the Navy's own reckoning, the US fleet will drop from its 1980s high of 565 ships to 450 by 1995.

Even if present shipbuilding plans proceed, experts say the Navy will shrink to between 410 and 425 ships by the end of the decade. A recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study puts the reduction as low as possibly 310 by the year 2010.

"In the short term, the Navy will have to do more with less," says Ronald O'Rourke, a naval affairs analyst with the Congressional Research Service.

The failed coup in the Soviet Union as well as President Bush's most recent statement on nuclear arms reductions "established a new defense spending climate," he says. Fleet levels in the Navy's 1995 plan are "unsustainable, mere way points on the way down," according to Mr. O'Rourke.

Fleet structure is necessarily a long-term concern, says Anthony Cordesman, national security adviser to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. The Navy mortgaged about 25 percent of its shipbuilding budget through the end of this decade when it decided to buy a new class of attack submarines, called Sea Wolf, O'Rourke says. Each sub costs $2 billion-plus.

But by the end of the decade there will be a much greater need for amphibious assault ships to support expeditionary forces than attack subs, says Mr. Cordesman.

The current inventory of assault ships is nearing obsolescence. In addition, the Navy has to make a clear decision on whether to buy a new $4.5 billion Nimitz-class nuclear carrier by next year, he says.

"Before you build a fleet you must know the mission," says James Tritten, an associate professor at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif.

Today's Navy, he says, has 2-1/2 fundamental missions. It must still provide deterrence by projecting a global presence, and it must be prepared to fight in a wide mix of coastal environments, as it recently did in the Gulf war. It also must keep an eye on the Soviet fleet.

"Even though the Navy won't have to be ready, as in the '80s, to fight fleet-on-fleet battles with the Soviets on a day's notice, the Navy hasn't been quick enough to sort this out" in its fleet planning, says Jay Kosminsky, deputy director for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank. …