Ship upgrades may have prevented greater damage

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Earlier incidents had demonstrated vulnerability

By Ed Timms / The Dallas Morning News

When it's all said and done, the apparent terrorist attack on the USS Cole may demonstrate the value of safety improvements that were incorporated into the design of one of the Navy's newest ships.

But the attack also reinforces a sobering reality for the nation's men and women who serve on missions overseas: Sometimes "showing the flag" comes at a tragic cost. And terrorists can strike anywhere, anytime.

The Cole, an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided-missile destroyer, was refueling at a pier when a rubber speedboat exploded alongside, Defense Department officials said. The explosion created a 20-by-40-foot hole on the port side of the ship.

Experts say that the ship, commissioned in 1996, has highly sophisticated damage control systems and is structurally robust, in part because previous incidents revealed serious shortcomings in the design of warships.

Those include a 1975 collision between the cruiser Belknap and the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, a 1987 incident in which the U.S. Navy frigate Stark was struck by two Iraqi Exocet missiles, as well as damage inflicted on British ships by Argentine forces during the 1982 Falklands War.

Both the Belknap and the Stark were heavily damaged by fire and explosion.

"I was the flag officer on the Kennedy the night of the collision, and I walked on the deck of the Belknap about 36 hours later," said Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a retired Navy rear admiral and vice president of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It looked like the surface of the moon, with all of the lightweight materials that had melted and dripped down."

Several factors had prompted warship designers to use lighter metals, such as aluminum, which often melt at lower temperatures. As naval warfare became increasingly high-tech, ships' superstructures supported more and more antennas and dishes. Using a lighter metal helped to keep the ships from becoming too top-heavy. Also, a lighter ship might go faster, require less propulsion power and use less fuel.

And during the Cold War, when the threat of a nuclear exchange seemed more likely, some military planners thought extra armor would have little impact on whether ships survived relatively intact or not at all.

But in time, Mr. Carroll said, designers went back to more sound and fundamentally engineered designs that could better withstand battle damage.

There are still weight concessions. Warship design invariably involves compromises on defensive armor, performance, weaponry, comfort and cost. But "survivability" is a very high priority.

"The point is to make the ships more damage-resistant and to make it easier to control damage," Mr. Carroll said. "They're getting away from the fire-susceptible materials."

The Cole has an all-steel hull and superstructure, large foam tanks for fire control, and an extensive sprinkler system. Vital areas on board are protected by extra layers of steel and Kevlar armor.

The ship also boasts a daunting array of weapons, including a 5-inch rapid-fire cannon, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and Phalanx "close-in weapons" that can spew hundreds of 20 mm rounds at an enemy airplane or missile.

But use of such weapons, or even small arms, may be problematic when a warship sails into the waters of another nation.

"When you're in the harbor, part of your defense relies on the host nation," said military analyst Austin Bay, co-author of A Quick and Dirty Guide to War. "That's the situation here. The host nation bears a large responsibility when a warship comes into port in peacetime."

The defensive stance, he added, can depend on the perceived threat. If there is intelligence suggesting that a terrorist attack is possible, the crew of a warship would probably take more precautions. And the host nation might be expected to provide more security.

Mr. Carroll said that taking security measures in a foreign port can be a tricky business.

Distinguishing between a boat or aircraft that innocently ventures too close to a U.S. warship and a terrorist attack could be very, very difficult – until the answer is apparent. The consequences can be dire, either way. In 1988, the U.S. cruiser Vincennes downed an Iranian airliner that it mistook for a hostile military aircraft, killing 290 civilians. That incident created a firestorm of controversy.

"If they had gone in with their guns loaded and ready, and started shooting a harbor craft, it would have been hell to pay," Mr. Carroll said of the Cole.

With the very real threat of terrorism in the world, U.S. military leaders frequently emphasize the importance of "force protection" – measures taken to reduce risks to service members.

The Middle East has long been viewed as a high-risk area. And, as one of the most visible icons of U.S. foreign policy, U.S. service members frequently have been targeted. For example, 19 U.S. airmen were killed in 1996 when a truck bomb exploded at Khobar Towers military housing project in Saudi Arabia. And 241 U.S. service members, mostly Marines, were killed in a 1983 bombing of their barracks in Lebanon.

Many thousands of U.S. service members are deployed to the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. And terrorists, experts say, could strike anywhere.

"There isn't any way to protect all these people all the time against all hazards," Mr. Carroll said. "Terrorists don't have big guns and bombers and submarines. They have to improvise, and they use truck bombs and boat bombs and all sorts of nasty things. ...

"The idea that we can be present all around the world, 365 days a year – and not, in effect, be painting bull's-eyes on our units for disaffected foreign elements – is wrong."