Navy Backs 14-Carrier Fleet Despite Call for Reductions : Budget: Cheney's plan to scale down the force to 12 ships is rebuffed. The service has not detailed alternative spending cuts.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a pointed rebuff to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's budget-cutting plans, the U.S. Navy is pushing to maintain a fleet of 14 aircraft carriers, at least two more than many officials believe the Pentagon can afford, defense officials said Wednesday.

Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III proposed the bigger fleet as he briefed Deputy Defense Secretary Donald J. Atwood Wednesday on the Navy's response to Cheney's latest budget directive, the officials said.

Garrett is expected to present the Navy's position in the near future directly to Cheney, who has ordered the military services to trim billions of dollars from their projected spending from 1992 through 1997.

Garrett's recommendation came less than a week after Cheney told Congress he intends to scale back procurement of Navy aircraft to a level consistent with a fleet of 12 aircraft carriers. The Navy maintains a fleet of 14 carriers.

Cheney cautioned that he had made no final decision to decrease the size of the carrier force. But several Pentagon and Capitol Hill analysts said his willingness to publicly embrace 12 carriers in his planning assumptions makes such a reduction virtually inevitable.

Even so, one knowledgeable Navy official said that "Garrett is going to make the case for 14 carriers to the secretary."

Navy officials long have characterized aircraft carriers as "the backbone" of U.S. naval forces, and they pressed throughout the Ronald Reagan Administration to maintain a fleet of 15 carriers.

With the decommissioning Monday of the 42-year-old aircraft carrier Coral Sea--two years ahead of schedule--the U.S. carrier force shrank from 15 to 14 ships.

"Garrett believes the secretary of defense wants service secretaries to act as advocates for their services and that's what he's going to do," the Navy official said.

In a "fiscal guidance" document issued to the Navy last month, Cheney told the service that it could spend as much as $40 billion yearly by 1997 to operate its carrier force. While that is an increase from projected 1992 spending of $37 billion, it would be a substantial decrease after accounting for the effects of inflation.

Cheney divulged his carrier fleet planning assumptions last week as he proposed that the Navy trim its projected purchases of new A-12 attack jets from 858 to 620.

"I think we're going to conclude that we're going to want to go with a smaller carrier force than we have today," he said. Pressed by lawmakers, Cheney acknowledged that the smaller A-12 force is scaled to fit a fleet of 12 carriers.

If Cheney approves such a reduction, Pentagon officials said the decision could mean early retirement for the aircraft carrier Ranger, based in San Diego, and the America, based in Norfolk, Va.

It was not clear what kind of alternative reductions Garrett intends to propose to compensate for the Navy's request to maintain a fleet of 14 carriers.

In sending the 14-carrier recommendation to Cheney, Garrett overruled a plan proposed by senior Navy officers to scale back the fleet to 12 carriers, one official said.

In restoring the two carriers, Garrett had not developed detailed alternatives, officials said. But one noted that he might urge Cheney to fund the larger fleet with reductions in other large defense programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars."

Garrett told a group of business leaders in San Diego last week that he is prepared "to argue with Secretary Cheney" on the issue of the Navy's size and composition.

"I'm sure he expects a vigorous dialogue on the issue of force structure," Garrett said.

In another speech, Garrett warned against cutting "a billion here and a billion there" from the Navy budget in an effort to reap a peace dividend because of sweeping changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

If adopted by Cheney, Garrett's budget proposal would shift stiff budget-cutting pressures elsewhere within the Pentagon.

The retirement of two carriers and the 30 escort ships that normally sail with them would allow the Navy to cut its manpower rolls by roughly 20,000 men and women.

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