WASHINGTON — IT would be the biggest floating artillery battery in history.
The US Navy is pushing ahead with plans to build the so-called Arsenal Ship, a new bargain-basement warship that would be packed with up to 500 cruise missiles and may eventually incorporate radar-hiding stealth technology.
The vessel is billed as a weapon for the post-cold-war era. By marrying small crews with "off the shelf" technologies and enormous firepower, Navy officials say the vessel is ideal for meeting an uncertain future of shrinking defense budgets, reduced military manpower, and heavier workloads.
But the Arsenal Ship is controversial because it could usurp a strategic role - inland bombing - traditionally handled by the Air Force.
Manned by only 20 to 50 sailors, a single Arsenal Ship stationed at sea could loose massive volumes of precise fire-power against inland targets up to 1,000 miles away, Navy officials say. It could be armed with a combination of long-range cruise missiles and short-range tactical missiles. Closer to shore, it could support US troop landings by blasting enemy artillery, armor, airfields, and harbors.
Navy officials and other experts see the Arsenal Ship as a critical tool for fulfilling post-cold-war US strategic requirements. Deployed almost continuously, the vessels could be used to deter aggression in the Persian Gulf, Korean peninsula, or other regions that US defense planners view as potential hot spots where US interests are at stake.
"We see this ship as a significant part of joint operations in the future," says Rear Adm. Michael Mullen, who is overseeing the program.
The project, however, could face several hurdles that could hamper the prototype's voyage from the drawing board to the water by 2000. These include tighter budgets that have forced the Pentagon to delay from fiscal 1997 until fiscal 1998 a plan to reverse a steady decline in funds for new weapons. But the administration is seeking $25 million in the 1997 budget to initiate the project.
Many experts also expect fierce opposition from the Air Force, which jealously guards the role of striking inland enemy targets. It could see encroachment on that mission - and its budget - as lawmakers compare the $520 million cost of the first Arsenal Ship with planned multibillion-dollar purchases of new strike aircraft.
"The Navy, which came out the big loser in [participation in] the Gulf war among the services, may now be positioning itself to come out the big winner in the budget war," says Andrew Krepinevich, who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington defense think tank.
The Navy could further anger the Air Force by arguing that bringing the ship's weapons to bear will be far faster than delivering them by aircraft, which have to fly long distances, require refueling, and can be delayed while awaiting overflight or basing permission from other countries.
Some analysts, however, question the precision of the missiles the Arsenal Ship will employ. "It becomes a question of time lines and whether the progress in these types of munitions is rapid enough," says Michael O'Hanlon of Washington's Brookings Institution. "I tend to think it's a bit early to begin building an Arsenal Ship."
The Clinton administration, however, has made the ship one of the "highest priority programs within the Navy," according to a March 18 internal memorandum signed by the Pentagon, the Navy, and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), which established the project.
The memorandum kicked off the program's design phase. Defense contractors, who were briefed by DARPA last month on the ship's requirements, are being asked to submit design proposals to competition. One will be selected. Construction of a prototype would begin in 1998 and it would have to be at sea by 2000.
"The idea is we build a few of these, four to six," explains Admiral Mullen. "They are on station typically in three areas of interest: one somewhere in the western Pacific, one in the Indian Ocean, and one in the Atlantic or Mediterranean. They are there all the time, we don't bring them back."
A huge bang-for-the-buck is the project's major selling point. The prototype's $520-million price tag compares with $900 million for an Arleigh Burke class frigate, which carries 94 vertically launched cruise missiles, and more than $4.5 billion for an aircraft carrier.
Retired Adm. Joseph Metcalf III, who first proposed the Arsenal Ship in 1988 while deputy chief of naval operations, says he thought it would take much longer for the idea to be officially accepted. "It's going quickly because of the budget crunch," he says.
DARPA's involvement is key to keeping the ship's costs low. Under seldom-used defense budget provisions, innovative programs overseen by the agency are exempted from lengthy and expensive federal acquisition regulations that can add years to weapons development. Using existing technologies will also help reduce research and development costs.
Another money-saving device will be eliminating from the ship expensive, maintenance-heavy radars and other sensors used in guiding missiles to their targets, officials say. Instead, its weapons will be fed targeting data from sensors on other vessels, aircraft, satellites, and the ground. Initially, the crew will push the firing buttons, but eventually the missiles could be launched by ground commanders.
"This is a magazine [with] massive fire power, and someone else pulls the trigger is where we are headed," says Mullen. He says that the remote-control feature will allow the Arsenal Ship's crew to be kept small, further reducing costs.
The prototype will be armed with 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can carry conventional warheads up to 1,000 miles and warheads that disperse submunitions up to 750 miles.
Successor ships will be capable of launching a variety of long- or short-range tactical missiles, unmanned spy aircraft and possibly even antimissile missiles.