Last summer, in the Pentagon's biggest war game ever, an invasion fleet heading for a fictional Middle East nation got soundly trounced in the Persian Gulf. The mighty U.S. Navy was no match for the wily Saddam-like dictator, played by retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper. He ruthlessly sent swarms of explosives-laden pleasure boats and old propeller planes on suicide attacks. Together with a few outmoded Silkworm antiship missiles from China, the small boats and planes sank 16 U.S. ships--including the fleet's aircraft carrier and other vessels carrying thousands of marines.
The Navy brass have long been leery of the threat posed to its big ships by antiship missiles and by swarms of little boats in "brown water," meaning close to shore. Years before the suicide-boat attack on the destroyer USS Cole in October, 2000, some Navy officials wanted to develop smaller, faster war boats for brown-water battles. Dubbed Streetfighter, the concept was championed by Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski, who now heads the Pentagon's new Office of Force Transformation.
The idea ran into widespread opposition, however. Critics fretted that the little ships would suffer high casualties, which might make the Navy less attractive to new volunteers and undermine congressional support. Novelty was also a liability. For more than a century, the U.S. Navy has been geared to fight on the high seas. And in those deep, blue waters, bigger is better. "Zipping around in souped-up speedboats is not what the Navy has done," says military analyst John E. Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va.
Streetfighter advocates countered that the U.S. lost its last blue-water rival a decade ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, many naval officers doubt there will ever be another deep-ocean slugfest like those in World War II. The Navy's main task now is supporting ground forces and peacekeeping missions--which means getting close to shore because naval guns currently have a range of only 13 miles. In such brown water, big ships are sitting ducks: In less than a minute, an antiship missile can whiz from land and smack a ship several miles at sea.
The advocates won. And the Navy may soon get its first Streetfighter--called a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Six contractor teams recently submitted LCS design concepts to the Pentagon, and next month, the Defense Dept. will pick three designs for further refinement. The ultimate winner could go into production as soon as 2005. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, also a proponent, and Cebrowski have pointed out that LCS could allow a significant expansion of today's 315-ship Navy without substantially raising costs. They want to buy 50 to 70 of the new war ships at less than $220 million a pop. That's about a quarter of the price tag for a new destroyer. And some of the new designs might be cheaper.
The LCS concepts are believed to range in length from about half the size of a 500-foot destroyer down to the 80-foot size of the PT boats of World War II. But they won't look like anything in today's fleet. Above its deck, the mini-destroyer proposed by Northrop Grumman Corp.'s (NOC ) team resembles an F-117 stealth bomber--and below deck is a durable composite-plastics hull. It's modeled on the Visby-class 270-ft. ships that Sweden's Kockums is building for the Swedish Navy. How important will stealth be in brown water? "We're trying to determine that right now," says Admiral Donald P. Loren, the Navy's deputy director for surface ships. With a vessel that can plow through the waves at 50 knots (55 mph) or more, he says, perhaps some of the extra cost of slanted, radar-absorbing panels can be traded for more ships.
Other proposals are equally unconventional. The team led by General Dynamics Corp.'s (GD ) Bath Iron Works envisions a trimaran hull adapted from a high-speed ferry being built in Australia by Austal Ltd. And Lockheed Martin Corp.'s (LMT ) group probably offered a catamaran patterned after its 105-ft. prototype Sea Slice vessel and a bigger, 310-ft. cargo ferry built by Australia's International Catamarans (Incat) Tasmania. The Navy is "being challenged to think differently," said Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vernon E. Clark at a naval-warfare symposium last October. "It is a different time."
New computer technology is helping to win over some former opponents. The Navy began developing a computerized combat network more than a decade ago, aiming for the integration of military sensors, which proved so effective in Afghanistan. Its Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) system, built by Raytheon Co. (RTN ), is already deployed on more than 20 big ships. So, when Streetfighters take to the waves, CEC could help them outfox opponents. Their skippers would get real-time intelligence gathered by radar on big ships farther out to sea, by video cameras and other sensors on manned and unmanned aircraft overhead, and by robot submarines and speedboats--also under development--that will go in harm's way without endangering sailors.
Analyst Pike says he's fascinated by the whole issue of revamping the Navy for near-shore duty. "But the fundamental question," he adds, is whether the Navy can scuttle "its big-ship mind-set." If it does, Streetfighters might provide a brown-water punch that could prevent real-world disasters such as the Navy's make-believe one last summer.
By Otis Port in New York and Stan Crock in Washington