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TWELVE AIRCRAFT CARRIERS are needed for the nation's defense, says the Clinton Administration. So Congress approved $3.6 billion in the fiscal 1995 budget to finish construction of a nuclear-powered carrier at Tenneco's Newport News (Va.) shipyard. With fewer U.S. bases abroad, 12 carrier battle groups are necessary to help deter America's enemies, it's said. The Navy says it may need to fight two major regional wars nearly simultaneously.

IN REALITY, the U.S. doesn't need 12 carriers. It could probably get by with 10, saving roughly $5 billion yearly. Nowadays, smaller, cheaper surface ships often assume tasks once unique to aircraft carriers. During the Persian Gulf war, carrier-based bombers didn't do all the Navy's work: Long-range cruise-missile strikes on Iraqi targets were launched from smaller vessels. Air Force F-111 jets from Britain carried out the 1986 raid on Libya. And basing the size of the carrier fleet on a two-war scenario doesn't make sense given the diminished threat and the Navy's dwindling budget. Amy BorrusEDITED BY LARRY LIGHT AND JULIE TILSNER

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