Like the other military services, the United States Navy has some serious problems. Shortages of skilled personel delays in the construction of new ships, submarines, and aircraft, and a declining inventory of weapons, ammunition, and spare parts -all in the face of an expanding Soviet navel presence -are worrisome trends. President Reagan has taken account or these concerns in calling for a hefty $4.2 billion boost in shipbuilding funds in the next two years alone. But, as in the case of other military requests, it is far from clear that the long list of items sought is based on solid considerations, of cost effectiveness and defense need. Thorough analysis of US security goals and task, is called for before the Navy is given a green light for costly new programs. The growing naval might of the Soviet Union is not in dispute. The Russians have vastly expanded their sea capabilities in recent decades and today pose a formidable challenge to the US Navy. This is an uncomfortable situation, to say the least. The United State, unlike the USSR, depends on freedom of the seas for its security. It must have a powerful sea arm in order, among other things. to defend the sea lanes so vital to the independence and vitality of Western Europe, Japan, and indeed the entire world.
It cannot be said that today this capability is endangered, however, and the public should not be misled by alarming talk. For all its advances, the Soviet Union is not in a position to threaten the West on the high seas without incurring enormous (and some would say intolerable) risk. The Soviet Navy has its own vulnerabilities. It has resupply problems at sea. It has iced-in ports in winter. and its fleets in the Barents, Baltic, and other seas could be swiftly bottled up in time of crisis. It does not have sufficient air cover for its carriers or adequate missile-reload capability, with the result, say experts , that its ships would be bombed out of the water after the first battle. Ship for ship, the Russians do have an edge over the US and its NATO allies (some 1, 700 surface ships for the Warsaw Pact as against 1,500 for NATO). But in terms of aggregate tonnage NATO is by far and away superior, with a larger number of big, more sophisticated, and more efficient vessels.
With the Russians now able to project power more effectively, however, the US Navy is stretched thin, and the administration therefore plans to increase the fleet from 456 to 600 ships. Most experts agree more ships are needed, although the specific figure of 600 seems drawn out of a hat. In any case, part of the naval debate revolves around whether to build more large aircraft carriers -up to 15 from the present 12 -or to concentrate on smaller vessels.
In this day and age bigger does not always mean better. Many naval analysts are convinced it makes more sense to build smaller vessels that afford greater flexibility, cost less, and still enable the US Navy to carry out the task of projecting power ashore in third world regions (a major function of the big carriers). One reason they cite for this is that in a nuclear war it would be difficult to defend the big carrier against enemy attack and, once struck, a huge investment would be quickly lost. Consequently, commanders would be supercautious notm to risk the big flattops and might be reluctant to use them.
Secondly, it is argued, on the offensive side supercarriers are not as crucial to naval warfare as they once were. Technology has improved to the point where it is not always necessary, to send manned aircraft into enemy territory; for instance, cruise missiles, carried aboard bombers or ships, can do the job more efficiently and without risking a pilot's life. Bombing in a modern war. moreover, would not be of the World War II wave-afterwave variety. Today accuracy of weapons wouid make the task swifter and easier.
Thus, with Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft and a proliferation of cruise-missiles a naval destroyer or a smaller, less expensive carrier could do what is now done with a large carrier. Other innovative ideas to be explored include building modern (and less expensive) diesel-eleetric submarines to complement the nuclear attack submarine force. It might also be sensible to spread the ballistic missiles among more, smaller submarines rather than build more large submarines which, if attacked and sunk, similarly represent a bigger loss.
At any rate, until US strategic policies and naval tasks are worked out, it is impossible to make sound decisions on the kind of navy the US should be developing. One constructive idea is that the President appoint a blue-ribbon panel of experts, drawn from within and outside the military establishment, to look at the whole range of defense problems, including doctrine and strategy. The problem of letting the Defense Department make the decisions is that it is under enormous pressures from the services to go for the gold-plated items. The intense bureaucratic rivalry within the Navy among the three communities -air, submarine, and surface-ship, each protecting its own turf -makes objective, disinterested analysis even more difficult.
Pending a thorough review and recommendations by such a panel, the administration would do best to concentrate on maintenance and readiness -on getting the present Navy (and Army and Air Force) in good working order rather than scrambling after glittering new items. For all the cry about needing more ships, the fact remains that the ships in service now are short some 20,000 petty officers. They also lack equipment -spare parts, ammunition, torpedoes. Furthermore, the nation's shipyards are behind in fillin even current shi buildin orders. In this connection, taking two old battleships and a carrier out of mothballs also raises questions. At a cost of almost $1 billion for the three , such a move is enormously expensive (the battleship Iowa does not even have an engine in it and the carrier Oriskany is not airconditioned and therefore cannot run modern electronic fire-control systems). And, at a time of manpower stringency, one wonders how the Navy will man the vessels (it takes 2,500 people to keep one battleship going). On the other hand, supporters of the idea say that, if more ships are quickly needed to flesh out the Navy, the battleships, armed with cruise missiles. could be useful.
On balance, the great need -as we hope our five editorials on the military budget have borne out -is for a comprehensive, balanced, professional examination of the whole issue of national defense and security. The new Republican leadership has an opportunity to perform an immense service in this regard for, more than the Democrats, it has the "tough-posture" credentials and image needed to sell the analysis. Such an analysis might find, for instance, that it is not necessary for the US to spend appreciably more for defense, and who better than Presiden Reagan to tell the American people that.
The nation must have a sturdy defens fully capable of performing its appointed tasks. But why should defense not meet the same standards of need, efficiency, and effectiveness as are applied to othe r items of the federal budget?