Senate Hampers Sale of Navy Ships To Eager Nations

IF everything had gone according to plan, the USS Saginaw would now be the HMAS Kanimbla and the USS Fairfax County would be the HMAS Manoora.

Both would be sailing to Australia, which had agreed to buy the troop and tank transports (LSTs) from the US Navy for $40 million, including training and spare parts.

But the United States Congress has gotten in the way of the plan, and the ships are now tied up at Norfolk, Va.

The vessels should have left the United States a month ago, but their departure was held up by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which also blocked the transfer of 13 other LSTs.

The first transfer would have involved six ships destined for Australia, Morocco, Spain, and Brazil.

The committee was concerned, however, that the Navy retain the capacity to move about 40,000 Marines and their equipment, at any given moment in time, to distant shores.

A congressional aide says concern about Korea figured in the discussions.

In June, there was an attempt to move the more ``time sensitive'' ships - including one for Morocco, which wanted it in time for King Hassan II's birthday on July 9.

But a congressional staffer says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts wanted more information from the Moroccans about possible human rights abuses.

When the Moroccans did not respond, he held up that part of the legislation. Soon the congressional summer break arrived.

THE logjam was partially broken last Thursday evening when Senator Kennedy withdrew his objections and the committee agreed to allow the sale of five of the ships as part of the Fiscal Year 1995 defense budget authorization bill. (The bill still must clear the full Senate and a conference committee.)

But the committee and the Navy failed to resolve the issue of moving the Marines. Instead, they agreed to negotiate the fate of nine other ships next year, and the Navy will keep at least six of the ships out of the 20 in the class.

This means that at least one country won't get a ship. The delay in the transfer for the nine LSTs will affect the navies of Spain (1 ship), Chile (2), Malaysia (1), Argentina (1), Venezuela (2), and Taiwan (3). ``We hope they find a solution because we were counting on getting the ships,'' says a spokesman in the Spanish Embassy.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Majority Leader George Mitchell says it is not certain when the Senate will vote on the defense legislation. ``It could be days, it could be weeks,'' she says.

It won't come too soon for the Australians. ``The crews have just about run out of money,'' an Australian officer says. ``They've traveled all over the United States playing the tourist.''

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