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Next on the Navy's drawingboards: benign-looking warships. Admiral urges design of dreadnoughts loaded with belowdecks arms

Today's United States Navy battleships bristle with 16-inch guns and look as fearsome as anything afloat. Tomorrow's US dreadnoughts may be covered with nothing but hatches, and look no more warlike than a river barge. As Navy planners sketch designs for the next generation of warships, one option being considered is a hull with no guns, large radar, or flying bridge - but with hundreds of missile launching tubes below decks. Its benign appearance would belie its firepower.

``I want to fill it up with missiles from one end to the other,'' said Vice-Adm. Joseph Metcalf, deputy chief of naval operations for surface warfare, in a recent interview on the Navy of the future.

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Even if this dreadnought never comes to pass, it is clear that more radical ship designs of all classes will be seen in the fleet. Two years ago Admiral Metcalf scrapped the FFX, a next-generation frigate meant to supplant Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships such as the USS Stark, struck by Iraqi missiles in the Gulf in May. At the time, Metcalf said the FFX was too big, too costly, and merely an update of World War II forerunners.

The force behind such rethinking of ship platforms is weapons technology. The cruise missile, in combination with new radars and launch methods, has entirely changed the way many Navy officers think about fighting on the surface of the sea.

A few years ago aircraft carriers were the only Navy ships with real long-range punch, and other ships were essentially defensive. The advent of the cruise missile has meant that ships of almost any size can strike targets at great distance. The ``battlespace'' of a surface ship, according to Metcalf, has expanded from about 25 miles, the range of a naval gun, to about 1,500 miles, the range of a Tomahawk cruise missile.

``The naval argument of the next decade is going to be planes vs. cruise missiles,'' said Metcalf.

In fact, he said, the two weapons serve different purposes. Carrier attack planes can carry a heavy load of ordnance, accurately attack elusive targets such as trains, or be recalled if a strike is canceled at the last minute. Cruise missiles can be launched instantly and attack heavily defended targets without risk to a human pilot's life.

One forthcoming plane vs. cruise missile decision may go in favor of the missile. At one time, the Navy had intended to restructure the decks of reactivated World War II battleships to accommodate vertical-takeoff aircraft. Now the Navy apparently is not inclined to undertake such an expensive Phase 2 modernization, and intends instead to increase the number of cruise missiles per battleship beyond the current 32.

Though their guns look impressive, battleships ``are actually underarmed, considering their size and ruggedness,'' according to a congressional naval expert.

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The new Vertical Launch System (VLS), which stores ready-to-fire weapons below deck level in much the same way that submarines carry ballistic missiles, would enable a battleship to brandish dozens more cruise missiles. It would also make possible the missile dreadnought.

Metcalf envisions the dreadnought as a hull about the size of today's destroyers, with the superstructure ripped off. Packed inside would be a honeycomb of VLS cells - 300 or more. Equipment not related to missile firing would be kept to a minimum. There would be no large radar, no traffic safety office, no file cabinets, not even a real bridge. Battles would be run from the combat information center belowdecks.

``I've said we don't need bridges on ships. That gets the juices flowing in old sailors, I assure you,'' said Metcalf.

A missile dreadnought would be a relatively inexpensive means of increasing the US Navy's firepower, according to Metcalf. It would, in essence, be a floating magazine, working in conjunction with a ship carrying an expensive targeting radar, such as an Aegis cruiser. Although many naval experts think the dreadnought idea is worth exploring, a few dismiss it as impractical. ``It sounds great. I just don't think it will work,'' says one civilian maritime analyst.

Too much space is taken up with necessessities such as propulsion plants and crew quarters for a compact hull to carry hundreds of missiles, says this analyst.

VLS systems can fire a number of different missile types. But the thought of thousands more cruise missiles on the high seas, in particular, worries some arms control experts. Cruise missiles can carry nuclear warheads, and analysts such as James Rubin of the Arms Control Association consider them accurate first-strike weapons whose widespread deployment could destablize the superpower nuclear balance.

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