New Navy Ship Faces Its First Battle


SELDOM has past glory mixed so starkly with uncertainty about the future as in the launching of the USS Arleigh Burke, lead ship of a new class of United States Navy destroyer. Earlier this month a diminutive Roberta Burke christened the ship while her husband, Adm. Arleigh Burke - a World War II veteran who gained fame fighting the Japanese Navy - looked on.

But the ceremony was overshadowed by charges that delays and cost overruns made the new ship a ``procurement nightmare.'' Those remarks by Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan were rebutted at the launching ceremony by Rep. Joseph Brennan (D) of Maine, in whose district the ship is built. Mr. Brennan condemned Mr. Dingell's charges as ``irresponsible.''

The clash between congressmen of the same party, one representing a state heavily dependent on Army contracts and the other representing a state even more heavily dependent on Navy shipbuilding, seemed to epitomize pressures building within a Department of Defense budget capped at about its 1985 level.

Crammed with missiles and technology, the long gray Arleigh Burke contrasts sharply with a US destroyer fleet made up of many aging ships.

But discussions in the Navy's professional journal make clear that even in the Navy there is doubt among some submariners that any surface ship - even the $1.2 billion Burke-class destroyers - can survive in the face of a high-tech submarine threat.

Ronald O'Rourke, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) specialist in naval shipbuilding, sees this building into a possible intra-Navy competition for funds if it comes down to a choice between more Burke-class destroyers or a fully funded ``buy'' of the new Seawolf attack submarines.

The senior civilian and military leadership of the Navy, out in full force for the Burke launching, defends the surface Navy on grounds that only such ships (centered mainly around aircraft carriers) can perform the range of sea control and projection-of-power missions required.

Mr. O'Rourke and his CRS associates have been warning for four years that the ability to perform such missions on the scale now contemplated is being brought into doubt by slippage in construction of escorts, such as the Burke, on which the carriers depend. Early retirement of some 32 such escorts during the next two years will create a shortage of 20 to 30 percent, he says.

The extent to which such budgetary pressures are producing strains even within the top levels of the Republican Party was apparent from remarks by Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Bush administration, Mr. Cohen said, does indeed have a comprehensive strategy, despite appearances that Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney is simply whittling here and there to keep all the armed services as happy as can be expected.

The naval buildup sought by Cohen clashes with the retirement of 32 escorts sought by Mr. Cheney. Prospects of reducing costs by cutting forces via the arms control process may be years away. In the meantime, the ``thinning out'' of battle force escorts described by O'Rourke would seem to dictate increasing reluctance to place such forces in such ``high threat'' areas as the Norwegian Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Pacific, thus placing US Air Force and Army forces deployed in Europe and Asia in jeopardy.

Senator Cohen's confidence that the Bush administration has resolved all of these conflicts is not shared by all who have studied the administration's military policies to date.

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