Navy needs more and smarter ships, commanders say

SAN DIEGO'Navy chieftains yesterday weighed in on the need to expand the nation's fleet of combat ships, adding that the service, however, must improve its onboard communications and other technical systems.

"Numbers count," said retired Vice Adm. Alexander Krekich, president and chief executive officer of Norfolk Shipbuilding and Drydock Corp. "A 290-ship Navy is too low." To get to the 375 ship target, he said the Navy needs to invest resources in rolling out 11 new ships a year.

But Krekich and retired Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, former commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, stressed the need to better manage the plethora of communications systems outfitted on naval combat ships. To avoid information overload, the service need to better integrate its networks and fuse its data collection systems, the pair said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's West 2003 conference.

A former Marine Corps commander agreed. "We've got a net for everything. We don't need a net for everything," Maj. Gen. Larry Livingston said. "Somebody's got to control it."

The former naval officials also said all new ships must be capable of handling the asymmetrical threats that the Navy now faces, such as Internet cyberterrorism and bioterrorism, in addition to more typical threats, such as sea mines and submarine attacks.

But Livingston said simply rolling out new ships is not the answer. The Navy must focus on the development of affordable ships that can be used for multiple tasks, rather than rushing to beef up fleet size.

"Any ship that we build has to be attached to a viable national strategy, a strategy that we can articulate when we go to Congress" to seek funding, Livingston said.

Meanwhile, the Navy is looking into ways to use the latest technologies to combat more traditional weapons at sea, such as sea mines. The Defense Department's deployment orders, which last week called for shipping 35,000 troops to the Arabian Sea and Southwest Asia, has heightened these efforts, Navy Adm. Robert Natter said during a keynote speech.

Natter said he visited Finland last month to look at their sea mine operations, which he called "the best offensive mine operation anywhere in the world." Afterwards, Natter said Navy leaders sat down with the Mine Warfare Command to discuss technologies that DOD could field quickly. The Navy also conducted an experiment in the Gulf of Mexico where sailors tested the latest sensor technologies, Natter said.

The Fleet Forces commander said the Navy is developing tactical mine countermeasure systems, such as unmanned mine detection technologies installed on high-speed vessels that can scan the ocean floor to spot mines. During the Gulf War, Iraq used sea mines to damage the USS Princeton and USS Tripoli and thwarted amphibious operations in Kuwait, Natter said.

"We're pursuing this big time," Natter said. "We cannot afford not to pursue these technologies. The mine threat is a readily available threat."

Natter said although the Navy is better prepared now than during the Gulf War, but mines are being deployed in record numbers by U.S. adversaries because they are relatively cheap to build, can prevent the Navy from gaining an advantage on the seas and can cause egregious damage.

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