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Aegis to put swagger in the Navy's step

We are adrift in a whaleboat in the Pacific Ocean, west of San Clemente Island. Rising on a swell we see the USS Valley Forge turn and head straight for us, at top speed. It is as if we are being charged by an office building proceeding at 30 knots. One of the crewmen turns toward me. ``Are you sure you didn't say anything this morning that made the captain angry?'' he asks.

The Valley Forge makes a slight turn and slides by us, leaving the ocean green and glassy-smooth in its wake. In some ways the craft does not look fearsome. It has few guns and a superstructure that resembles a large forehead, giving the ship a scholarly air. It is not much larger than a destroyer, and it appears to be armed primarily with antennas.

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But the Valley Forge is key to Navy plans to put more swagger in the step of the surface fleet. It is a controversial new Aegis-class cruiser, $1 billion worth of electronics and missiles designed to destroy flying targets for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.

``We've got some pretty slick capabilities,'' claims Capt. Theodore Lockhart, as we stand on the bridge following the whaleboat excursion.

Under the ship's superstructure forehead is a SPY-1 phased array radar which the specification sheet says can track more than 200 missiles and aircraft simultaneously. In the holds are some 80 Standard 2 guided missiles, with two-armed launchers fore and aft. Amidships are Phalanx machine guns, which spit 3,000 antiaircraft rounds a minute and sound like very large chainsaws.

Marched down below decks through corridors covered with no-wax flooring, I come to the heart of the operation: a dim room dominated by four large screens. Here, in the Combat Information Center, commanding officers would watch a detailed radar picture of a battle outside and direct the Valley Forge's fight. If particularly pressed, officers could let computers take over the job of picking important targets and firing weapons.

``Some cruise missiles come in at mach 2.5. Against certain threats there might be no option but automatic operation,'' says Lt. Comdr. James Stavridis, ship operations officer.

The Navy plans to eventually buy 27 Aegis-class cruisers. The first, the USS Ticonderoga, entered the combat fleet in 1984. Valley Forge, set to begin full service soon, is the fourth.

That these ships are being built is implicit acknowledgement by the Navy that aircraft carriers and other large surface ships are very vulnerable. Guided missiles launched by enemy ships, submarines, or planes are now accurate enough to sink with a single blow from beyond visual range. An Aegis cruiser's primary job is to protect a battle group from such airborne threats, though it also carries sensitive sonar for anti-submarine work. Aegis ships are in essence goalkeepers of the fleet: In Greek mythology, Aegis is the shield of Zeus.

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Secure in this protection, the Navy can in turn be more aggressive on offense, say officers. In particular, surface combatants such as battleships can bring their guns to bear with much more impunity.

``The word `offense' is creeping back into the surface vocabulary,'' says Valley Forge executive officer Lieutenant Commander Powell Fraser.

In two days aboard ship I am struck by Valley Forge's combination of tradition and technology. Polished brass is on the bridge, starched tablecloths are on the officers' mess, and a piece of historic wood from George Washington's Valley Forge camp is mounted in a corridor. A computer room looks like an IBM sales branch.

The Combat Information Center has all the atmosphere of an air traffic control center. During a general quarters drill, officers show me and other visitors how their ship might work in a crisis. We blink in the darkness of the CIC, as video game-like pictures come up on the room's screens. Everything over, on, or beneath the ocean in the immediate area is identified. Small symbols differentiate ships from subs, indicate whether the object is friendly or hostile, and plot object course and speed.

Suddenly from the west come the tracks of two imaginary Soviet missiles, attacking at mach 1.8 and 30,000 feet. Ideally, Valley Forge earlier would have detected the presence of missile-laden Soviet planes and directed patrolling F-14s to destroy them. As it is, the missiles have been fired and sneaked too close and the ship must defend herself.

``Request battery release,'' says operations officer Lt. Comdr. Stavridis. Capt. Lockhart complies. ``Birds away,'' says a voice in the dark at the back of the room.

Two tracks approach the Soviet missiles head on. In seconds the two sides' weapons overlap, and all simply disappear from the screen. ``Grand slam,'' says the hidden voice, indicating that Valley Forge's Standard 2 anti-missile missiles have destroyed the threat. It is about as exciting as opening a new file on a word processor.

This is a simple exercise, of course, and in this air-conditioned and quiet room a real battle might seem just as bloodless, the only difference being perhaps a current of human tension.

For the Valley Forge to be sailing the Pacific, the Aegis cruiser program has survived much criticism. Early in this decade Aegis was as derided in Congress as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle is today. A 1982 House study called the design sluggish, overweight, and unstable. In an test in 1983 the USS Yorktown missed 11 of 15 targets because of equipment malfunctions and crew mistakes.

The Yorktown did better in subsequent tests and performed well in this spring's Navy operations against Libya, say officers. In the Gulf of Sidra, however, the ship did fire missiles at a radar contact the Navy has yet to identify. Navy officials say privately the Yorktown may have blown up a low-flying cloud.

Some critics say Aegis cruisers, even if they work well, could be a beacon showing a fleet's presence. When the SPY radar is switched on, each face pours out six megawatts of power per pulse, acting as a bright light to attract radar-seeking missiles. Valley Forge officers reply that when operating at sea against a well-armed enemy the SPY radar might be operated in short bursts. ``If we knew they knew where we were, we'd leave it on. Otherwise we might not,'' says Lockhart. Changes in frequency would prevent anti-radiation missiles from homing in on his ship, he adds.

With only 80 Standard 2 missiles aboard, Aegis cruisers must also be careful about firing their own weapons, and depend as much as possible on carrier air power. If operating within range of land-based Soviet aircraft, an Aegis-protected fleet might find its defenses strained by continued dense raids. Yet official Navy strategy is to fight toward USSR home waters in the early stages of a superpower conflict.

It is far from certain whether Congress will purchase all the Aegis cruisers and new Arleigh Burke class Aegis-equipped destroyers that the Navy wants. Each such ship, after all, is expensive enough to have a measurable impact on the US gross national product.

On the Valley Forge the people say the cost is worth it. The ship is considered a plum assignment for both officers and enlisted men. Crew members say they signed up for the duty because they wanted to be at the Navy's cutting edge.

``We have another incentive: I refuse to serve Brussels sprouts,'' says Lt. Com. Powell.

Tomorrow: On the USS Acadia

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