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Rigging US container ships to defend themselves in time of war

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When Caspar Weinberger takes over as secretary of defense Jan. 20, he will find a program on his desk that could substantially increase US antisubmarine defenses without the high expense of additional escort ships.

The program calls for placing an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) force on commercial container ships during a national emergency or war. It contemplates using standardized, prefabricated container-size modules fitted together to provide living and operations-support facilities for an ASW mission. The Navy calls the program ARAPAHO.

When container ships started coming down the ways in significant numbers eight to 10 years ago, "No Navy man worth his salt could help but wonder if you couldn't convert their flat surfaces into flight decks and put airplanes or helicopters on them," says Capt. Gerald G. O'Rourke (USN, ret.) of Maritime Associates, Inc., in Burke, Va.

Mr. O'Rourke sees ARAPAHO in terms of how one defines the mission of an ASW force and the best means to achieve its objective."We can't afford to think [ that] destroyer equals mission," he says. "We must be clear on the mission, and when it comes to keeping commercial sea lanes open during time of crisis or hostilities, and the other worldwide commitments of the US Navy, ARAPAHO looks like a prime candidate for accomplishing this mission."

The ARAPAHO program is funded in two stages at a total cost of $12 million to systems-design and hardware-compatability with merchant ships down pat. The second stage, scheduled to be completed this spring, is to see if antisubmarine deterrence can be made operational on container ships (most likely aboard a British merchant vessel.)

According to ARAPAHO project manager Lt. James Mulquin (Naval Reserve, ret.), the main ingredients are:

* Cramming three to five 20 foot by 40 foot cargo containers with the latest in ASW electronic listening gear and prepositioning them in various North Atlantic commercial ports or setting them aside on designated ships (containers can be loaded by crane or rolled on and off in 60 seconds).

* Outfitting, or having the potential to outfit, approximately every 10th container ship traveling in convoy with at least one ARAPAHO package.

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