Rigging US container ships to defend themselves in time of war

When Caspar Weinberger takes over as secretary of defense Jan. 20, he will find a program on his desk that could substantially increase US antisubmarine defenses without the high expense of additional escort ships.

The program calls for placing an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) force on commercial container ships during a national emergency or war. It contemplates using standardized, prefabricated container-size modules fitted together to provide living and operations-support facilities for an ASW mission. The Navy calls the program ARAPAHO.

When container ships started coming down the ways in significant numbers eight to 10 years ago, "No Navy man worth his salt could help but wonder if you couldn't convert their flat surfaces into flight decks and put airplanes or helicopters on them," says Capt. Gerald G. O'Rourke (USN, ret.) of Maritime Associates, Inc., in Burke, Va.

Mr. O'Rourke sees ARAPAHO in terms of how one defines the mission of an ASW force and the best means to achieve its objective."We can't afford to think [ that] destroyer equals mission," he says. "We must be clear on the mission, and when it comes to keeping commercial sea lanes open during time of crisis or hostilities, and the other worldwide commitments of the US Navy, ARAPAHO looks like a prime candidate for accomplishing this mission."

The ARAPAHO program is funded in two stages at a total cost of $12 million to systems-design and hardware-compatability with merchant ships down pat. The second stage, scheduled to be completed this spring, is to see if antisubmarine deterrence can be made operational on container ships (most likely aboard a British merchant vessel.)

According to ARAPAHO project manager Lt. James Mulquin (Naval Reserve, ret.), the main ingredients are:

* Cramming three to five 20 foot by 40 foot cargo containers with the latest in ASW electronic listening gear and prepositioning them in various North Atlantic commercial ports or setting them aside on designated ships (containers can be loaded by crane or rolled on and off in 60 seconds).

* Outfitting, or having the potential to outfit, approximately every 10th container ship traveling in convoy with at least one ARAPAHO package.

* Outfitting each of these convoys with six to eith aircraft (either helicopters or vertical takeoff and landing planes) capable of conducting ASW operations. "Even if each aircraft is only carrying one torpedo, that's one more out there than we would [otherwise] have," says Mr. Mulquin.

* Leasing the container space on the ships from commercial owners so that in a time of emergency the necessary space would have been kept open.

With aircraft and containers, it is estimated the entire ASW package would require 30 percent of a medium-size container ship's carrying capacity. The ASW packets would be reusable.

The ASW package would comprise a force of 60 officers and enlisted personnel. Planners say it is a mission that falls naturally to the concept of the Naval Reserve and fits in with the American tradition of civilian militia involvement in time of military crisis. Much of the work, it is envisioned, would be simply making sure the equipment was kept in ready state.

The program, proponents say, would augment funding for the ailing domestic merchant marine. Indeed, the key congressional backers of the ARAPAHO program come from maritime districts.

Assuming that it would take four to six crusier-destroyer escorts to adequately protect a normal container ship convoy, planners claim the need could be reduced to two with the extra ASW "eyes" along.

Cost and the long lead time needed to build new combat vessels warrant an ARAPAHO program now, say proponents. The US Transportation Institute in Washington claims that "since it seems impossible for the Navy to adequately defend the merchant ship convoys which would have to be quickly deployed at the start of a NATO- Warsaw Pact conflict, the next best alternative would be to give the ships their own built-in self-defense capability, to complement, not replace, the Navy surface combatant escorts, which would still be needed."

But some major negative concerns about ARAPAHO come from the Navy itself, such as: Will it compromise money set aside for fleet expansion? Will it compromise the purchase of high-performance aircraft? It has been estimated that the Navy needs to replace 330 planes a year to maintain present aircraft levels, whereas it has replaced only 247 a year for the last 10 years.

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