Sneak Attack

3 minute read

In the battle to build aircraft carriers, the Navy seems to live by the credo “You win some, you try to win some more.” In 1983 Congress provided funds to lay the hulls for two new carriers; three years later Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger remained so grateful that he promised not to seek money for more flattops until 1992. But at the urging of former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, Weinberger is already fighting for funds to begin construction of two more carriers. The Secretary’s turnabout has legislators fuming, and Congress seems in a mood to repulse the new offensive.

Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy has scoffed at Weinberger’s request as just an “expensive going-away present for Navy Secretary Lehman,” while Democratic Senator Carl Levin has noted that the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress last year said the two oldest carriers in the Navy’s fleet did not have to be replaced until the 1990s. At a public hearing, Levin asked Weinberger, “How in the world did these two carriers slip into the budget?” The Secretary insisted that nothing had changed; since each takes about seven years to build, he was still merely “asking for two in the ’90s.” He had not cited the carriers in the most recent shipbuilding schedule, he said, because “these are rolling plans.” Complained Levin, to loud laughter in the hearing room: “That’s a rolling answer.”

The Navy had argued that by starting construction now, some $3 billion could be saved from the cost of the two carriers, estimated at $10.5 billion if begun in the 1990s. But a General Accounting Office study this month put the saving at only $700 million. Critics of the Navy noted that the cost of aircraft, missiles and escort ships pushes the total price for the two vessels up to $36 billion. Even as replacements, the two new carriers would cut heavily into the Navy’s ability to provide the manpower, maintenance and operating funds required by its expanding fleet.

As both sides renewed the old battle, Lehman’s successor, James Webb, pointed out that the Midway will be 50 years old by the time it can be replaced. But the highest Navy officer, Admiral William Crowe, who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fired a shot across the fleet’s bow by arguing that “painful choices have to be made.” The admiral said he would give higher priority to such matters as “modern munitions, antisubmarine warfare and the SSN ((attack submarine)) program.” That may have sounded like mutiny to the Navy, but some budgeteers on Capitol Hill were applauding.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at