Just before Congress began its August vacation, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz, brought a notable amendment to the floor. He proposed to kill the Navy’s $2 billion baby, the submarine SEA WOLF. It was one of the two best ideas put before Congress this year.
The other superlative idea was to kill the Space Station Freedom, the $30 billion baby of the space program. Regrettably, the space station survived. Regrettably, under pressures of the rush to recess, McCain withdrew his amendment. Nevertheless he was right on target.
A good deal has happened since McCain made his aborted effort on August 2 A group of hard-line communist conspirators attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup failed. Responding in outrage, the Soviet parliament voted in effect to dissolve itself. The Soviet empire lies in autonomous pieces. The power of the Communist Party has been smashed. Leningrad will be known again as St. Petersburg. Otherwise it was a quiet vacation.
Meanwhile, here at home, the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics, builders of SEA WOLF, has had to begin dismantling the partly assembled hull. Hundreds of cracked welds will have to be replaced at a cost running into tens of millions of dollars. The taxpayers will have to pay for the company’s mistake.
McCain bas the right idea. Instead of throwing good money after bad, let us stop now. At a certain stage in the funding of any major federal project, a point of no return is reached The project gains an unstoppable momentum, but SEA WOLF is not yet at that point.
The Arizona senator cannot be brushed aside as a knownothing peacenik. He is a graduate of the Naval Academy, a distinguished and courageous officer, the holder of every medal short of the Medal of Honor. As a combat pilot, captured in Vietnam, he spent six years in a communist prison. H any member of the Senate has good reason to advocate a strong national defense, it is John McCain, last of the Cold Warriors.
Why does he want to sink SEA WOLFl In his view the supersub is not needed and the mind-boggling expenditure is not necessary. “We do not need to spend 25 percent of the Navy’s Shipbuilding budget on a ship that is designed for threats to this nation’s vital security interests that no longer exisl”
It would be far better, in McCain’s view, to invest the Navy’s available funds in airlift and sealift improvements. Our amphibious forces verge on obsolescence. We especially need improvement in countermeasures against mines. For the foreseeable future, McCain sees no threat from a dismembered Soviet Union. Threats will come from other directions entirely.
“The SEA WOLF class submarine does not reflect these realities or the lessons of the gulf war. It is a class of submarine which is designed to counter a very sophisticated Soviet submarine and naval threat, which none of our potential adversaries in the developing world possess.”
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 7, spokesmen for the Navy attempted to make a plausible case for saving SEA WOLF. It was a lame effort. Rear Admiral Raymond G. Jones, Deputy Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare, described his baby as “the key, the blue chip,” to maintain undersea superiority. SEA WOLF can dive deeper, lie quieter and carry more armament than any submarine ever built.
The role of submarines is growing, Jones said, not diminishing. Thirteen submarines participated in Desert Storm, and several of them fired Tomahawk missiles. They also conducted surveillance operations and provided “valuable, real-time tactical intelligence while supporting the U.N. embargo against Iraq.”
Vice Admiral James D. Williams, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations of Naval Warfare, told the Senate committee that many countries are striving to acquire a submarine force. He mentioned China, North Korea and India. These provide “a significant threat: While the U.S. submarine program barely coasts along, the Soviet Union is launching nine or 10 excellent submarines a year. It is imperative, said Williams, that the United States keep ahead of the Soviets in both strategic and attack capability.
Not surprisingly, Connecticut’s Sen. Joe Lieberman supports SEA WOLF; his Groton constituents at Electric Boat are building it. John Chafee of Rhode Island also defends the project, but other senators have expressed strong misgivings.
Since the heyday of Adm. Hyman Rickover, the submarine service has functioned as the most powerful, privileged and promoted branch of the Navy. This overblown role never has been justified. Congress could begin to restore a better balance by killing SEA WOLF, a submarine whose time has passed before it began.