Before Bush became President, the Navy and its allies were carefully laying out their case in Congress and the press that the current fleet of 316 ships, built around 12 giant aircraft carriers and their escorts, was overstretched, and that it needed at least 360 ships, including three additional carriers. The exact number of vessels was more ploy than plan, but the message was clear: more ships.
But then Rumsfeld hijacked the military's slow-moving Quadrennial Defense Review with his own commando study teams of Pentagon mavericks and outside experts. They included Pentagon guru Andrew Marshall, a longtime critic of carriers, and his leading disciple, Andrew Krepinevich, who called for cutting the carrier fleet to 10. Suddenly, the admirals were on the defensive, mustering congressional testimony and newspaper op-eds just to preserve the ships they had.
Rumsfeld himself has so far remained mysterious about where he thinks the Navy should head. Even the Administration's one clear defense priority-missile defense-contains much ambiguity for the sea service. It could mean new funding for building more anti-missile ships equipped with the Navy's vaunted Aegis radar system, or it could mean simply another mission added to an already overtaxed fleet.
On the positive side of the ledger, one of Rumsfeld's advisory panels, ironically led by a retired Air Force general, James McCarthy, has endorsed "forward-deployed" forces, such as aircraft carriers, that can project power against an opponent far from U.S. shores. To beef up the fleet, McCarthy even advocated accelerating development of the next-generation carrier airplane, the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter. On the negative side, McCarthy damned with faint praise, and a second Rumsfeld panel downright panned, the very program that the Navy had considered its most impressively innovative-a new destroyer design called DD-21. With a radically new power plant, a stealthy hull, and unprecedented computerization, DD-21 was supposed to be, in Pentagonspeak, the "transformational" ship that would propel the Navy boldly into the high-tech future.
Indeed, sometimes the Navy sounds like the baffled old-style husband who can't understand why his wife cries on their wedding anniversary: Don't you like your present? Wasn't it what you'd said you wanted? The Navy feels it is already doing everything it was asked to do. Do you want rapid response to brushfire crises overseas? The Navy has patrolled off Third World shores for years. Want an airbase that can move out of the way of SCUD-style missiles? Aircraft carriers sail at 30 knots. Want a computerized Information Age force? The Navy first started networking ships to share intelligence and targeting data back in the 1970s. "The Navy is the last outfit that has to be told, `Oh well, you have to transform yourself,' because they already have," grumbled Norman Friedman, an independent naval expert. "[But] they haven't been very good at publicizing it."
In part, the Navy has an inherent image problem. The Air Force can show off sleek stealth planes and space-war satellites. The Army, for all its troubles with transformation, can point to new, lightweight, wheeled vehicles that are visibly different from its old, heavy, tracked tanks. But a ship still looks like a ship. Although the naval trade press buzzes over radical new designs, such as twin-hulled ships that look like giant catamarans, the institutional Navy has approached such ideas with caution. It rejected a needle-nosed, bat-winged "stealth ship" concept for its next-generation aircraft carrier in favor of the same big-flat-deck design that has characterized every carrier since the 1930s. For its new destroyer, it rejected a barge-like "arsenal ship" that carried few sailors but multitudes of missiles to bombard land targets from afar. And it discarded the idea for swarms of small "Streetfighter" boats that could sneak in close to shore to fire their weapons. Instead it decided in favor of DD-21, which for all its innovations, is about the same size as older destroyers and retains the traditional guns on deck.
Navy boosters say it's not the hull, but what's inside, that counts. No matter how old-fashioned a ship's steel body may be, its capabilities increase dramatically when you replace its electronic brain. More-powerful computers can better analyze faint radar and sonar traces of a hidden enemy, more quickly calculate the fire of guns and missiles on the target, and share far-more-detailed intelligence with the rest of the fleet. "In the Persian Gulf War, it took two days to plan a Tomahawk [cruise missile] mission; during Kosovo, it took an hour and a half," said retired Adm. Archie Clemins, who spearheaded the computerization of the Pacific Fleet. "There was some improvement in weapons, but primarily that was a function of networks."
The Navy has already fitted half the fleet with its Internet-like "IT-21" networking system, which is scheduled to be on every ship by 2005. In battle, detailed locations of friends, foes, neutrals, and unknowns, be they flying, sailing, or submerged, are transmitted over increasingly powerful datalinks. And after a two-year struggle with software glitches, the carrier John F. Kennedy, its escorts, and its aircraft have completed a field evaluation of a new computer network for sharing targeting data called the Cooperative Engagement Capability. "Physically, it's not much more than an antenna and a black box," said Congressional Research Service expert Ronald O'Rourke, yet that box allows ships to share radar data updated a thousand times a second, enabling the entire battle group to fire on targets that only some of them can see.
The Navy hopes cooperative engagement will defend its cherished aircraft carriers-both physically, by helping to shoot down incoming missiles, and politically, by rebutting criticism of the ships as giant sitting ducks. But the end of the competition with the Soviet navy on the high seas has moved the Navy to take on ever more missions in the waters off Third World shores, where small islands, turbid shallows, and civilian vessels provide ample hiding places for a low-tech ambush.
In that environment, despite the new high-tech gizmos, critics still see a carrier with more than 60 aircraft and 5,000 people, with a $4-billion-to-$5-billion price tag, as an awful lot of eggs in one basket. Even a $1 billion, 300-sailor destroyer, the USS Cole, proved too tempting a target for a single suicide boat in Yemen. During the Gulf War, one mine nearly sank the similar USS Princeton; and even earlier, in 1987, two Exocet missiles, one of which didn't even explode, crippled the USS Stark. Rather than rely on ever more elaborate, and expensive, high-tech defenses, the skeptics argue that it is better to build a larger number of smaller ships, each individually elusive and expendable, yet all coordinating their actions over a computer network-just as a pack of wolves all work together to pull down a big caribou.
The most refined form of this idea, the "Streetfighter" concept, is the brainchild of maverick Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski. Cebrowski is reportedly Rumsfeld's choice for a new Pentagon civilian post-transformation czar-whose job would be to push all of the services toward the new high-tech warfare. If he gets the nod, Cebrowski could have considerable influence on the future size and shape of the Navy.
The appointment would not thrill Cebrowski's fellow admirals, however. His small Streetfighter ships would consume scarce funds for what traditionalists fear will be little result. The problem, they say, is one of physics: As an object grows, its carrying capacity (volume) increases faster than its drag (surface area), so it's relatively easier for a big ship to go fast than for a little one. A 9,000-ton destroyer needs 100,000 horsepower to steam at 30 knots, but a 90,000-ton carrier needs only 280,000 horsepower to reach the same speed: Ten times the size requires only three times the power. So, a small, fast ship will be mostly engines, with little room for weapons. And although the Cole, Princeton, and Stark were each crippled by a single blow, none of them sank. A smaller ship might have gone down with all hands. Thus, Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, the Navy's chief for determining future needs, told the Senate Seapower Subcommittee on June 7: "For the Navy, transformation is not about getting lighter."
But McGinn said something else that day, something surprising: that the Navy budget's first priority had to be computer networks; then better sensors; then new weapons; and only in fourth place, new ships. "Numbers do matter," he wrote in prepared testimony. But forced to choose between building more ships and upgrading current ones, McGinn said, "I would opt for the lesser number of more-capable platforms."
In part, McGinn makes a virtue of necessity. Incremental upgrades are far more affordable than wholesale replacement of ships. Navy hulls are designed to last 30 years and it's simply too expensive to mothball ships with life left in them. The Navy already is struggling to afford its current build rate, which replaces only two of three ships it retires every year. At that rate, the fleet would, in about 20 years, be cut from today's 316 ships to 230. Rumsfeld has said that is too few-but he has not said how many is enough. With budgets tight after the tax cut, odds are that McGinn's smaller fleet of upgraded ships is exactly what the Navy will get.