San Diego — When the US rescue mission in Iran failed because three helicopters broke down, questions were raised with new urgency about the readiness of America's armed forces.
Military men avoided pointing a finger of blame at anyone for the Iran mission failure. Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, Chief of Naval Operations, told a meeting of naval engineer that the helicopter pilots on the rescue mission "were adamant in their praise for the maintenance crews." The admiral acclaimed the whole rescue team as "professionals."
But the Navy's most urgent and growing problem today is: Can it keep such top-flight professionals in its ranks? Can the Navy meet the soviet challenge at sea without major changes, including much higher pay for its best people?
Many servicemen, including technicians and pilots, can earn far more than their government salaries just by moving to civilian jobs. Many are making the switch.
At the same time, the US Navy has been forced to get by with fewer and fewer ships and planes even as the Soviet Navy is expanding. Some military experts warn that America's vital sea forces have been badly neglected.
The outlook isn't all gloomy. Recruiting of new sailors and marines has recently improved. And US ships and planes probably are better-maintained today than they have been in years, despite the breakdown of those three rescue choppers.
Admiral Hayward tells the Monitor that his service's overall readiness has "steadily improved" since the end of the Vietnam war. Ships have been overhauled, aircraft have been reworked, more money has gone into spare parts. The US has seen the "gradual, successful improvement of the total fleet," he says.
Navy recruiting currently is doing so well, especially on the West Coast and in the Midwest, that the commanding officer of the San Diego recruiting district suggests: "We may have to reduce some of our goals -- nationwide."
The Navy is virtually fully manned -- in terms of numbers, although not in skill s -- with about 524,000 men and 25,000 women; the Marines are, too, with 184,000 men and 5,085 women.
The problem, Navy men agree, is not mechanical. It is people -- people who cannot earn enough in the Navy to live decently and who can instantly double or triple their earnings if they leave.
The long Indian Ocean deployment that began about the time of the Iranian hostage crisis has accentuated the difficulties. It has stretched the fleet severely. Navy ship and air crews are spending much longer than normal periods without shore leave.
Back on shore, home-front money and morale problems affect the Navy and Marines as well as the other services. Benjamin F. Schemmer, editor of the Armed Forces Journal, estimated in March that 60,000 service people needed food stamps. Gen. Robert H. Barrow, commandant of the US Marine Corps, last March 5 notified all active and reserve marines that eligible families could obtain food stamps.
Admiral Hayward and Navy Secretary Edward Hidalgo have said a 19.8 percent pay raise, a variable housing allowance, and increased travel reimbursement would be a start toward stemming the departure of pilots, air crewmen, and many middlegrade enlisted specialists for better-paying civilian jobs.
Talking with sailors in Norfolk last March, this reporter was given a preview of how this home-front problem can affect fleet readiness. Said one petty officer: "I'd like to get married before my next sea duty. But no self-respecting local girl would want to marry anyone with my pay, and I wouldn't want to marry any other girl that would. You'll see, when the next ships sail for the Indian Ocean, there'll be a few people who aren't aboard.
Indeed, there were more than a few. When the carrier Eisenhower and the cruisers Virginia and South Carolina, all nuclear- powered, sailed from Norfolk recently for the Arabian Sea, 96 seamen failed to report for duty.
At both Norfolk and San Diego, there is grave concern about how the skilled manpower drain may affect readiness in the coming months. Admiral Bigley disclosed in late April that an unspecified number of Atlantic Fleet ships were considered unsafe to steam if they were to be used for extended long deployments , such as in the Indian Ocean.
The fuel, ammunition, and supply ship USS Canisteo had already been suspended from operations and temporarily docked, unable to meet a July commitment with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean because it lacked boiler technicians and machinists' mates -- many of whom had left for better- paying jobs in the merchant marine.
"There are simply not enough ships to meet our commitments, and not enough people to man the ships," Admiral Bigley told visiting newsmen.
In the Navy's air arm, says Vice-Adm. Robert (Dutch) Schoultz, commander of naval aviation for the Pacific Fleet here at San Diego, "Operations have not yet been affected by the pilot drain. But if it keeps up, some day soon we just aren't going to have enough people to fly the planes we have to fly."
Admiral Schoultz says the "headhunters" -- talent scouts for Boeing, McDonnell- Douglas, Lockheed, and other big aerospace, missile, and electronics firms -- are scouring the West Coast for discontented servicemen on their way out.
Meanwhile, naval leaders in Washington look to programs for the next 5-to-10 years for hope that at least the requisite numbers of ships and aircraft are available, even if the trained personnel to man them are not.
US Rep. Samuel Stratton (D) of New York, a "hawk" who had urged early military action against Iran, visited the US fleet now in the Arabian Sea. He said he found "the Coral Sea, our oldest operating carrier, obviously much in need of repair and rehabilitation."
However, the readiness of the air squadrons, Congressman Stratton found, was high, demonstrating that "despite any other failings, we have not lost America's professional touch at sea."
By the end of 1980, estimates Vice-Adm. James H. Doyle Jr., Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for surface warfare, the Navy will have 540 ships and 5,300 aircraft. "Our fleet," he recalls, "has shrunk over the past decade -- from 1, 055 ships and 8,500 aircraft to its present size."
The soviets now outnumber the US in all major warship categories except carriers -- and they have begun to show signs that their present three small carriers are only the first of a line of new ones, many of them nuclear-propelled.
The Soviets also are playing catch-up in every other major naval category: nuclear- powered missile cruisers, cruise missile technology (which they pioneered at sea), naval aviation (with the advent of the formidable, Backfire, bomber). In some areas, especially mine warfare, they have long been far ahead.
Early this year, the Carter administration announced a five-year program for funding 97 new ships between fiscal years 1981 and 1985, 42 percent more than the last five-year plan.
By mid-1979, in the words of former Navy Secretary J. William Middendorf, the service was ". . . more than 200 ships short of what is needed to carry out all of its missions with a reasonable hope of success."
How the Navy's ships stack up with the Soviet Navy, now being fleshed out by shipbuilding rates that exceed American rates in some categories by 5 to 1, is easily seen.
The US fleet now has 41 Polaris and Poseidon ballistic missile submarines. These are the "sea leg" of the US strategic "triad" (the other two legs are cruise missiles and bombers, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles).
The 31 Poseidons, each carrying 16 missiles with 10 nuclear warheads each, are the main force. A new generation of giant, missile-firing subs, the Trident , will go into service over the next 10 years to augment the Poseidons.
Arrayed against today's 41 American missile subs are 91 from the Soviet Union. The Soviets' undersea arsenal includes 32 Delta-class submarines that could fire missiles at any important target in the continental US from a safe haven under the Arctic ice of the Barents Sea.
Opposing the Soviets' estimated 145 smaller attack submarines and 65 other submarines carrying antiship cruise missiles, the US has 73 nuclear attack submarines.
The US, however, has anti-submarine warfare systems judged far better than the Soviets'.
The Navy so far has received 10 Los Angeles-class attack submarines. Congress has authorized construction of a total of 35. Each costs upward of $ 500 million, and Congress has asked the Navy to find a cheaper boat so that more can be built.
As for surface ships, Navy planners are debating what would be the most useful mix between Aegis (CG-47) cruisers and the FFG-7 frigates.
The Aegis cruiser, in the words of one top admiral, is "indispensable -- we need at least two to defend each of our 12 carrier groups." Its antiair warfare system of missiles is coordinated by a 360-degree illumination radar which watches a radius of 250 miles, and can attack about 18 targets simultaneously, a vast improvement over older systems.
Tha smaller frigates are guided-missile ships useful for escorting convoys and in anti-sub warfare.
A debate now is going on between those who want to build 18 cruisers through the 1980s, at a current cost of about $820 million apiece, and an additional number of frigates, costing $260 million each, and those who would build 24 cruisers and a lesser number of the frigates, or none at all.
Navy fliers and their superiors in Washington would like to see more Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carriers built after the latest one to be launched, the Vinson, is commissioned. President Carter successfully vetoed new one in 1978. But in 1979 Congress came back to authorize another nuclear carrier, costing $2 billion.
No major fight over carriers is likely this year, since no funds for new carriers were requested for fiscal 1981. However, a debate is likely to continue on whether to build large-deck, nuclear-powered carriers, or large-deck , conventional carriers, or middle-sized conventional carriers, or no new carriers at all.
Replacing the older A-7, A-4, and F-4 carrier aircraft is the new F/A-18 McDonnell-Douglas strike fighter. Full-scale production, the Navy hopes, will begin momentarily: and the Pentagon has asked Congress for $1.8 billion for it. Cost for the entire 1,366-plane program has risen through inflation to $29 billion.
This year there is again debate over the program for the vertical takeoff AV- 8B Harrier fighter aircraft. Congressional supporters want the Marine Corps, at least, to have the plane. The Marines badly want it for support of amphibious missions, like those which their 1,800-man force now in the Indian Ocean may have to perform.
Administration opponents charge the British-made Harrier lacks range, speed, and payload requirements for modern combat.
Admiral Hayward has repeatedly said to congressional committees and to visitors: "The Soviets are building a big, strong navy. If we are going to stay ahead of them, we have to do the same. . . . We cannot go on meeting a three-ocean situation with a one- and-half ocean navy."