Navy Riding Out Storm of Criticism of Gulf War Role : Defense: Its shortcomings may lead to more cuts, as Pentagon chiefs assess military missions and budgets.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of the armed services, the Persian Gulf War was more than just a job--it was a chance to strut their stuff and almost every branch emerged from the war with new luster.

The Air Force, for example, all but disproved the post-Vietnam War tenet that air power by itself cannot dictate the outcome of a war. The Army came back confident that its new high-technology weapons were not the duds that critics had claimed. Even the Marine Corps--though mainly left out at sea awaiting an amphibious landing that never came--made headlines: Onshore, the Leathernecks were instrumental in winning back Kuwait city.

Not so the Navy. While Air Force F-117 Stealth fighters dropped precision-guided weapons down carefully photographed Iraqi chimneys, the Navy's pilots were saturating Basra and Kuwait with iron bombs and cluster munitions that brought charges of brutality and unnecessary slaughter of civilians. In early efforts to target bridges in the theater, many of the Navy's unguided iron bombs failed to hit the mark and the Air Force was sent in to finish the job. At least 30% of the Navy aircraft in the Kuwaiti theater of operations was tied up defending the carrier task forces themselves.

Unfortunately for the admirals, all this comes at a time when the Pentagon's civilian leaders are assessing the missions and budgets of the military services in an effort to cope with the rapid "build-down" of defense spending that Congress has ordered. The dwindling pot of defense funds has set off a scramble among the services to protect and expand their shares. While the Persian Gulf War is not expected to reverse major budgetary decisions, it clearly has provided the Army and Air Force some guarantee that their positions will not erode.

But the blue-water Navy, which already is under orders to cut its fleet of aircraft carriers to 12 from 14, may not be able to fend off further cuts by Congress. Already, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's sea power subcommittee and a longtime advocate of a smaller carrier fleet, has called hearings on the role of carriers in the Gulf War.

Indeed, five weeks into the war, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney issued a frank warning to the sea service to keep its head down. "You still only get 450 ships, Dan," Cheney told J. Daniel Howard, the Navy's civilian second-in-command, in an offhanded comment during a Washington speech.

To be sure, not all the shortcomings cited in the Navy's Gulf War performance are as serious as they sound. Although concerned about the public relations aspect of such charges, Navy officials argue that many of the criticisms are easy to remedy--and are already in the works. For example, increasing the stockpile of "smart bombs" requires only the purchase of inexpensive "kits" that enable pilots to guide iron bombs to their targets by lasers.

And the admirals maintain that the Navy could expand its role for future operations by employing the proposed new AX aircraft, which are designed for both fighter and bomber missions. The AX--a restructured version of the A-12 that Cheney recently canceled--would replace the aging A-6 aircraft with a longer-range, more versatile aircraft than the Navy was able to field in the Gulf War, using Stealth (radar-evading) technology. Last week, the service won Cheney's approval to develop the AX.

Moreover, the Navy's defenders contend that the carrier action--though long regarded as the cornerstone of the modern Navy--was only a small part of the service's overall contribution to the Gulf action and that to judge the Navy solely on its performance during the air and ground war understates its role. "We were out doing our own thing--interdiction operations and contributing to the air war," one naval officer said.

There are these examples:

--Naval interception of Iraq-bound shipping during the first six months of the U.S. deployment helped whittle Iraq's supply lines and cripple the Iraqi economy. By the time the shooting war began, Iraqi forces had lost most of their supplies and spare parts.

--Navy sealift ships, while criticized initially as inadequate and too slow, carried 95% of the enormous U.S. military cargo to Saudi Arabia. And Marine equipment prepositioned aboard Navy warehouse ships was among the first heavy arms to arrive in the theater.

--Moreover, many credit the arrival of the aircraft carrier Independence in the Gulf of Oman on Aug. 7 with dissuading Iraqi forces from lunging farther south toward Saudi Arabia. That same day, the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower moved through the Suez Canal, bringing 164 aircraft within striking range of Iraq.

--And once the shooting began, the Navy aircraft--which had been assigned to protect the fleet as well as the flanks of the land operation--were necessarily cast primarily in a supporting role.

Barry Posen, a defense analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concedes that "it does not look like the Navy's contribution on the offensive side was very important to this war." But he argues that the Navy simply has not prepared itself for offensive bombing missions.

"Look at what exactly Navy air has been training and buying munitions for all these years," Posen said. "Their idea is that they steam around in the open oceans and attack naval targets ashore, such as ports and naval airfields, that they fight other people's navies at sea and defend their carriers and amphibious forces from assault. The kinds of missions the Air Force does--the offensive bombing that seemed to make such a difference here--this is stuff they're just not very interested in."

In spite of the Navy's reluctance to operate its carriers in constrained waters, such as the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, the service had moved six carriers--half the carrier force that is expected to survive the Pentagon's planned budget cuts--within striking range of Iraq by Jan. 21.

But its aircraft still made up fewer than 16% of the overall air forces in the theater, and they dropped only a tiny fraction--well under 10%--of the "smart bombs" that appeared to make such a difference in the outcome of the war.

Indeed, one of the Navy's most sparkling offensive achievements--the first-ever firing of Tomahawk cruise missiles from Navy ships in the opening days of the war--has sparked debate inside the Navy and out.

At $1.35 million apiece, each Tomahawk dropped the equivalent firepower of a $100,000, 1,000-pound bomb--with an accuracy that was outstripped by other aircraft in the theater. Navy planners say that the cruise missiles could be used day or night on targets and in weather that no current aircraft would brave. But one military planner still scoffs that the use of Tomahawks in the Gulf War was "a circus stunt" on a par with the Air Force use of F-117 Stealth fighters during the 1989 Panama operation.

Among some Navy officers, the successful use of the Tomahawks rekindled long-held fears that the unmanned cruise missiles would undercut the rationale for new carrier-based aircraft like the A-12.

"The problem the Navy created for itself," MIT's Posen said, "is that (it) proved that many of the targets you would customarily have allocated to a deep-attack aircraft can be successfully engaged by a Tomahawk, which can be widely distributed across the fleet. To the extent that that's true, you undercut the argument that you need large-deck carriers.

"That may be a hard lesson for the Navy to swallow," Posen added. "You could argue that Tomahawks put the last nails in the coffins of the A-6 and the A-12 strike aircraft."

Not surprisingly, the Gulf War travails--and the new budget realities--have sparked an agonizing reappraisal by some veteran officers.

Retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll, a former carrier skipper who is deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, warns that the Navy may be sowing the seeds of its own future weakness. Its reluctance to restructure the fleet for smaller, regional battles in constrained waters, such the Persian Gulf, may weaken the service's ability to compete in the budget battles to come, Carroll says.

"In its procurement program, the Navy is clinging to the image of an enemy that is very imposing, very advanced," Carroll argued. "We have to have subs that can hunt their subs under the ice, Stealth aircraft that can sneak up on them, ships that can spot attackers at 200 miles (away) for the big, blue-water slugfest in which the best systems will prevail. We just don't have a navy that's tailored to fight regional conflicts at an affordable cost. And if we keep buying these high-tech marvels, we're going to price ourselves out of the competition with the Air Force, the Army and the Marine Corps."

And, in a recent joint article in the Naval Institute Proceedings, the secretary of the Navy, the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps, which is a part of the Navy, outlined a definitive blueprint which argues that the Navy must shift some of its emphasis from open-ocean operations to handling missions in more-constrained waters, such as the Persian Gulf. "We must reshape naval force structure, strategy, tactics and operating patterns that are wedded too closely to the concept of an Armageddon at sea with the Soviet Union," they wrote.

Most threatening to some tradition-minded sailors, the three officials warned that as the number of aircraft carriers dwindles, the service will have to operate with smaller battle groups designed around cruisers, battleships and amphibious ships rather than carriers.

Indeed, the Navy--never keen to subordinate its operations to larger, multiservice undertakings--is "very distinctly and clearly embracing jointness (joint-service cooperation)," one naval planner said.

"That's a real change for the Navy," he added. "We really do have to work together. Some of the old guys in their heart-of-hearts feel that the Navy should still be able to go it alone but we're more professional than that. Besides, there'll be times when we're out there by ourselves."

At the same time, however, with so much invested in its blue-water fleet, the Navy is wary of "getting too carried away" by the lessons of the Persian Gulf War, according to one senior Navy official.

"We'd better be careful about what lessons we learn," Howard cautioned. "Things worked extraordinarily well but, if there's one thing we know with certainty, it's that there's an extraordinary level of uncertainty in predicting future conflicts.

"Will there ever be another war in the Persian Gulf?" Howard asked. "Will we ever again be invited by a host country like Saudi Arabia, which has already built this very large network of airfields, for example--to play tennis again where the other guy's built the court? Does it mean that we will never again have to do blue-water operations? Uh-uh."

It's too early to say how the Navy, ultimately, will fare in the wake of its Persian Gulf performance. Analysts argue that there are too many political crosscurrents to assess the Navy's prospects right now.

Meanwhile, unlike the Air Force and the Army, whose public relations machines have worked overtime to trumpet their achievements, the Navy has made a conscious decision to keep its head down. Officials say privately that the admirals are aware of the problem and figure the best way to deal with it is to ride out any storm.

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