Which weapons?

SOME interesting military questions arise out of the returns that have been filtering in from the United States strikes at targets in Colonel Qaddafi's Libya. For example, why was it necessary, with two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, to supplement their power by flying 51 US Air Force planes all the way from England?

A carrier has an average complement of 90 aircraft. The two carriers engaged in the April 14 strike sent 15 A-6 attack planes into the strikes at targets in the Benghazi area.

These two strikes were carried out by pilots who flew off their carriers, executed their missions, and were back on the carriers in perhaps not more than an hour. They were fresh for their task. So far as we yet know, the strikes from the carriers were relatively successful in doing what they were told to do.

The story at Tripoli was different. Here the attack was made by 18 F-111 strike planes whose pilots had been flying for six weary hours all the way from England before going into combat. Not all their bombs landed on target. It was something less than a ``flawless'' operation. It is reasonable to assume that the results would have been better at Tripoli had the attacks there also been conducted by fresh pilots off carriers standing nearby. The official reason given for sending the bombers by the long route from England is that there were only 20 strike planes with night-flying capability aboard the two carriers. A total of 33 strike planes were used in the two attacks.

One possible solution would have been to fly more A-6 planes from the United States to the carriers to give them the capability of doing the entire operation. Why not? Had that been done, the Air Force would not have played a part in the operation and Britain would not have been involved.

To build and outfit a modern cruiser with the full complement of planes, plus an escorting carrier and other small vessels needed for its protection, costs somewhere around $18 billion. The US Navy had, therefore, some $36 billion worth of fighting power right there in the Mediterranean within easy striking range of the targets in Libya, which is, after all, at best a third-rate military power incapable of putting fighter aircraft into the action on April 14.

Isn't $36 billion an expensive way of putting only 15 strike aircraft into an attack? If two big carriers can't deliver a harder punch than that against Libya, then would any commander in his right mind send the big aircraft carriers in an offensive operation against the Soviet Union? US Navy Secretary John Lehman talks of doing just that.

Much thinking among his Navy brass is going in a contrary direction. More than 10 years ago, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, who commanded US naval forces in Vietnam and then became chief of naval operations, urged a turn away from big carriers to much smaller ships, including small carriers.

Adm. Stansfield Turner, who once commanded the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, also advocates smaller ships. The future may well be for smaller ships fitted for launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. In theory, a few destroyers or frigates equipped with batteries of Tomahawk cruise missiles could have done the same damage done by the planes from the two carriers plus the bombers from England, and done it more accurately and at immensely lower cost. Besides, a cruise missile is unmanned. There is no pilot to get tired from a long flight, no pilot to be lost in action.

In the run-up to World War II, the US Navy was torn by feuding factions between battleship and carrier admirals. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor settled that argument. The battleship played a minor role in that war. It was decisive in one battle -- at the Surigao Strait -- and influential but not essential in supporting amphibious landings, including D-Day in Normandy. But the queen of battle in World War II was the big aircraft carrier. Has the queen been dethroned?

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