Union Tribune

February 1, 2003

Navy trimming its fleet despite specter of war

By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON At a time when the war on terrorism and a possible conflict with Iraq are forcing the Navy to deploy its warships at the highest rate in decades, it is retiring relatively young ships on an accelerated schedule, shrinking a strained fleet.

The early retirements will eliminate more than 30 surface warships in five years, twice the number of new ships the Navy will receive during that period.

In the current fiscal year, San Diego will lose the destroyers John Young, Kinkaid and Oldendorf, and the frigates George Philip and Sides. San Diego will lose at least one destroyer and a cruiser in the next two years.

With four aircraft carrier battle groups and four large amphibious task forces heading for the Persian Gulf and other units in combat training, the Navy said yesterday that of its 308-ship fleet, 199 are at sea.

The goal is to save money to buy the fleet of the future, but eliminating ships at a time of high demand is a risk, senior Navy officers said.

"It's a very delicate balance. We clearly don't have the ships we need to meet the challenges today," said Vice Adm. Timothy LaFleur, the San Diego-based commander of Surface Forces Pacific. "We're taking risks, but we're in the risk business."

Vice Adm. Michael Mullen, who must balance the Navy's requirements with its resources, said the service must accept some risk by stretching its forces.

Mullen said the Navy expects to save $43 billion in the next six years by divesting itself of older ships and aircraft.

But Ronald O'Rourk, the naval programs analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said years of service remain on the frigates and destroyers to be retired.

The early retirement of the ships "will drive the Navy surface combatant force below the 116 ships set forth in the Navy's plan, and drive the Navy (fleet) below 300 (ships)," O'Rourk said.

Although the Navy says it is cutting its fleet to save money to buy new ships, O'Rourk said it is buying half as many as it needs to sustain the force required to meet its obligations into 2005.

"It's fair to ask where the return in fact is," he said.

The Navy's hope of quickly reversing the fleet's decline rests on its plan to spur the development of the Littoral Combat Ship, a fast and inexpensive vessel designed to perform missions in the coastal waters off foreign shores.

"(The) LCS is very important to us," LaFleur said.

The proposed ship would be unusual in design and in the way it would be procured.

For decades, the Navy has insisted on buying large vessels packed with the latest technology and able to perform a range of missions. But such ships require crews of more than 300, take a decade to develop and years to build and, at $1 billion each, are too expensive to buy in large numbers.

The ship is to be smaller than the current frigates, with few built-in high-tech systems, requiring a basic crew of fewer than 30. The ships would cost about $300 million each.

They are designed to reach 50 knots and accept "mission modules" self-contained packages of sensors, weapons and processing equipment and the technicians to run them.

The various modules would enable the ships to tackle tasks such as finding submarines or mines in shallow coastal waters or taking on small, fast gunboats that terrorists or Third World navies could use against a U.S. fleet.

After awarding concept development contracts to six contractor teams last year, the Navy hopes to have the first of the new ships by 2007.

"We can no longer take 10 years to develop a class of ships," LaFleur said.

But O'Rourk noted that because the LCS project was started without the analysis that normally precedes a construction program, Congress raised serious challenges to it in last year's defense authorization bill.

Vice Adm. Philip Balisle, head of the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the Navy knows the threats the LCS ships will face "from real-world experiences."

"In a town that, by its nature, wants to study everything to death, I will tell you I think right now we know enough that we ought to commit to this ship and we ought to move forward," he said.