Indian Ocean crisis stretch Navy uncomfortably thin

Stretching its too-few ships and scarce trained manpower from the Atlantic and Pacific out over the Indian Ocean crisis area has become the Navy's most consuming problem.

The problem is starkly real for about 5,800 sailors, officers, airmen, and marines, soon to sail for the Indian Ocean -- not for a second Mediterranean trip as many had hoped -- aboard the huge nuclear-powered carrier USS Eisenhower , to relieve the "Ike's" sister ship, the Nimitz.

Nimitz personnel, cruising in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean have had no shore leave since January. Since her nuclear reactors need no refueling, the 89 ,000-ton Ike might be facing "an overall deployment duration of as much as nine months," her commanding officer, Capt. J.H. Mauldin, has warned the ship's company as they pack for the trip.

"Our ships and new weapons systems," says Vice-Adm. Thomas J. Bigley, commander of the US Second Fleet, "are very capable. US taxpayers have put their money into a first-line navy."

"You see it in the Nimitz, which sailed from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean at a high rate of speed, traveling (around Africa) 12,000 miles at 22 knots without any problems, without worrying about boilers or replenishment."

Admiral Bigley, a former submarine and destroyer officer who also commands NATO's inter-allied Striking Fleet Atlantic, agrees that one fairly rapid way to get more naval firepower and presence into the Indian Ocean or other remote areas would be to haul one or more World War II-vintage battleships of the New Jersey type and the old aircraft carrier Oriskany out of "mothballs."

The House Armed Services Committee has recommended this action, first suggested by the Navy, Admiral Bigley recalls, as one of the faster ways to beef up Navy surface fleet capabilities. However, he points out, the approximately $ 500 million per ship needed for refitting has been neither budgeted for fiscal 1981 nor approved by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

"This would be a big add-on to the budget. We wouldn't want it done at the expense of building new ships we badly need, such as the Aegis air-defense cruisers, the Spruance-class destroyers."

The old battleships, Admiral Bigley adds, are "super platforms. They're hardly sinkable. They've got about 15 years more life in them. But they've got to be modified." Some gun turrets would make way for helicopter or Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) decks, and "if necessary," the Navy's Harpoon and Tomahawk missile systems could be fitted.

The 33,250-ton Oriskany, Admiral Bigley says, would best be suited for the "attack role," to provide extra striking aircraft (like the Navy's A-7), rather than as a platform for more fighter planes like the F-4 Phantom or F-14 Tomcat.

Admiral Bigley heartily endorses the recent remark of Adm. Thomas Hayward, Chief of Naval Operations, that the US now faces a "three-ocean commitment with a one-and-a-half ocean navy." At least as critical as the shortage of ships is the problem of low pay and retaining trained men and women, who can earn much more in civilian life.

"We're losing the people, and we're not getting the most out of the equipment we have because we do not have the skills," the Second Fleet's commander said. He recalled that during a Caribbean exercise aboard the carrier USS Saratoga last January, he watched a "magnificent" young third-class petty officer (E-4) operate a computerized weapons system.

"He was as enthusiastic as could be, working awfully hard and eagerly, but lacked experience to make instant, right choices because there was no E-6 [ first-class petty officer] or E-7 [chief] standing behind him to give to him the benefit of their experience and expertise."

Admiral Bigley said a master chief petty officer told him: "I want to stay in the Navy. I love the Navy. I've spent 24 years in the Navy. But I've got two children to put through college, and I just can't make it any more. I'm getting out."

Nevertheless, according to an official Atlantic Fleet policy guide, there was a "dramatic increase" in overall second-term retention during the October 1978 -November 1979 period in the Atlantic Fleet. This is mainly due to "increased attention at all levels to the career development of our personnel. . . . Commanding officers are carefully weighing the early discharge of their personnel against the high probability that no replacement will be made available for those discharged prior to their normal rotation date," the directive adds.

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