Pentagon officials are designing a new Navy ship class that some believe could revolutionize maritime warfare as dramatically as the ironclad warships of the Civil War, the aircraft carriers of World War II and the Cold War’s ballistic missile submarines.
Called an arsenal ship, the new craft is essentially a floating missile pad run by remote control, with 500 vertical missile tubes able to launch against enemy targets on land, in the sky or at sea.
The highly automated vessel would ply the waves with a few dozen sailors or even no crew, a radical departure from today’s carriers, which have 5,500 crewmen.
The order to launch would not come from anybody aboard the arsenal ship, but from commanders - possibly in another military service - aboard another ship, or on a plane or even in a foxhole hundreds of miles away.
The arsenal ship’s missiles would be the Navy’s first weapons designed to be fired by someone not on the ship.
The remote-control ship is a top priority for the Navy, which is developing its first batch of six on an extraordinary fast track. The project is expected to cost about $3.5 billion, and the Pentagon already has budgeted $520 million through 2000.
The cost of the robo-ship has been capped at $550 million each, and the Pentagon expects to have the first one in the water in five years, one-third the time it has taken to design and deploy new models of other Navy ships.
“This is the first totally new warship concept by the Navy since the 1950s, when it developed the fleet ballistic missile submarine,” said Norman Polmar, a Navy consultant and historian.
Yet Navy officials, desperate for upbeat news coverage after so many public-relations disasters and the recent suicide of the chief of naval operations, Adm. Jeremy M. “Mike” Boorda, are in a jam over how to promote the arsenal concept inside the Pentagon.
Many military officials, including Navy aviation, submarine and ship commanders, fear it will be so inexpensive to build and run compared with other ships, and its military punch so devastating, that it will endanger their weapons budgets and turf. Army officials are uneasy that the arsenal ship will reduce the need for their ground-based missile defense and artillery weapons, such as the Patriot missile.
Moreover, the arsenal ship may threaten long-term funding for Navy and Air Force long-range bombers, in part because the new ship’s missiles can strike at longer range than planes, said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank.
So, Navy officials at times understate their excitement about the new ship so as not to stimulate opposition from other commanders fearing for the future of their “rice bowls,” as Pentagon programs are known.
“This ship is no cure-all,” said a Navy officer who earlier lavished praise on it. “People shouldn’t see it as a threat to their program, but a complement to what they’ll do in battle.”
The new ship’s most passionate defender is the Marine Corps, which thinks the vessel’s punishing missile barrages could protect troops in amphibious landings. This reasoning helped lead Boorda to aggressively push the concept before he took his life.
Between the world wars, the Navy mostly relied on sending battleships when the U.S. government wanted to make a point. In the Cold War, when the Navy’s priority was confronting the Soviet navy in the deep “blue water” oceans, it relied on aircraft carriers.
Now that the Soviet Union is no more, military planners are shifting their combat doctrine to “whitewater” areas closer to seacoasts. That is where the sluggish arsenal ship will lie in wait off the shores of countries where the United States suspects it may go to war.
If North Korea invades South Korea, the arsenal ship’s job would be to pound advancing tank columns, as well as Pyongyang’s key military facilities. Its curtain of missiles is supposed to stall the enemy attack several days, until arrival of U.S. forces.
Although merchant ships were automated years ago to save crew costs, Navy officials traditionally opposed doing the same because they wanted large crews around to repair battle damage.
So, to try to make the arsenal ship “virtually unsinkable” by mines, missiles or torpedoes - in the Navy’s words - they envision it with a double hull, a design never used on U.S. warships. It also is designing such features as having it ride low in the water to make it “stealthy” or hard to detect by enemy radar.
Military officials agree that its ultimate raison d’etre is to present the world with a weapon so intimidating that it scares malefactors into lawfulness simply by moving close to their shores.
That swagger was detectable in a dry Navy memo describing a key function of the arsenal ship. “Flexible response for administration of power,” it said, “independent of diplomatic limitations.”
xxxx UNDER THE GUNS The arsenal ship’s first assignment, Navy officials said, would be to anchor permanently off the coast of three hot spots - in the Pacific near Korea, in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Persian Gulf. Its job is to slow an invasion, such as the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, long enough for other forces to arrive.