Washington — In 1984, the private United States Naval Institute sponsored an unusual essay contest in Proceedings, its monthly magazine. The topic: What should the Navy do with its newest type of frigate, the controversial Oliver Hazard Perry class? Most entrants were Navy officers, and many defended the ships' role. But all admitted that Perry-class frigates, such as the USS Stark, were at best the economy subcompacts of the fleet.
``When [then] Soviet Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov goes to bed at night, he's not lying awake counting Oliver Hazard Perry frigates,'' one essayist wrote.
As this contest shows, the Stark and its fellows have been the subject of much argument in the Navy since they first began entering the fleet a decade ago.
They were intended from the first to be ``low mix,'' inexpensive ships to fill out fleet numbers. Critics say they were made cheaply by omitting weapons and electronics necessary for survival against today's high-tech antiship weapons.
Earlier this year, Adm. Carlisle Trost, chief of naval operations, said the Perry frigates, also known as FFG-7s, ``were built as a design-to-cost unit originally, and their capabilities were markedly narrowed as a result.''
Some of the FFG-7s' problems have been resolved. Originally lacking in communications capability, the class has since been retrofitted with sophisticated Link 11 communications gear, for instance. But the ships still have troubles with equipment that might have played a role in the Stark's defense of itself against an Iraqi Exocet missile, experts say.
For one thing, the Perry-class SPS-49 long-range search radar is far from the best installed on Navy ships. Essays in the 1984 Proceedings contest complained that it was ``two dimensional,'' in other words, that it measured only how far away an object was and what bearing it was on. Some more expensive Navy search radars measure an object's altitude, as well as its distance and bearing, and are thus ``three dimensional.''
The Perry-class MK-92 fire-control system, the radar and electronics that aim missiles and other weapons, also has been scored as lacking in some areas. The MK-92, a US version of a Dutch radar, has had trouble seeing low-flying objects and seeing through bad weather.
In 1982, then-Navy Secretary John Lehman admitted the MK-92 was a ``problem'' in need of a ``solution.'' An expensive improvement program has since been launched. The Navy has balked, however, at refurbishing Perry frigates with expensive new phased-array radars, as some key members of Congress have proposed. Such radars, small versions of the sophisticated ones on board Aegis-class cruisers, would have added more than $100 million to the cost of each ship.
``It would have been like putting a $100 saddle on a $10 horse,'' a congressional naval expert says.
Finally, the Perry class's last-ditch defense against missiles, the Phalanx machine gun, has been criticized as being poorly situated and too small. The Stark has only one Phalanx, mounted on the stern, which cannot fire at targets coming from all directions. The gun shoots 20-millimeter bullets, which some experts feel aren't large enough to knock down incoming missiles. In 1984 one essayist suggested replacing the Phalanx in the Perry class with the larger gun used in A-10 attack planes.
Soviet Sovremmeny destroyers, a class the Pentagon often compares with DDG-7s, has two Phalanx-like guns, mounted on each side of the ship, to provide a complete circle of protection.
Since the Perry class was first introduced it has also been dogged by general criticism about its performance. With a top speed of just under 30 knots, it is not a hot rod of the ocean. Certain fast Navy cargo ships, the type it is supposed to escort, can outdrag it. ``The Perry class is not a great ship,'' sums up a Navy captain who recently returned from a deployment in the Middle East.
Yet the Perry is also the largest class of US warships built since World War II. Two are being built; when they are finished, 51 will have been delivered.
They were designed primarily for escorting merchant ships or replenishment ships for carrier battle groups. In this capacity, anti-air capability would not be the most necessary talent, as submarines would be the primary threat. Thus Perry frigates are widely considered better antisubmarine ships than antiaircraft ships.
They are also perhaps designed to be expendable. Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of naval operations when the FFG-7s were being designed, wrote in his book ``On Watch'' that the class could be deployed to danger zones to allow the ``Navy's most important ships ... [to] withdraw from the front lines and deploy out of reach of an enemy first strike....''