The U.S. Navy has advised President Carter that small aircraft carriers with new types of planes on them look like the fastest and cheapest way to get more air power at sea.
The Navy, in a paper prepared for Carter's transition team at the Pentagon, noted that the White House National Security Council had recently concluded in a study that "we must find new ways to put air power to sea."
But because of cost constraints, the current combination of giant Nimitz nuclear-powered carriers and expensive fighter planes is not the way to go, according to White House analysts.
Yet, the Navy said in its transition paper prepared for Carter that the National Security Council had also concluded that "the rate at which the U. S. Navy gets rebuilt should be accelerated to meet the Soviet challenge."
The answer, the Navy told Carter, may lie in developing a new generation of airplane that can take off and land using only a short stretch of deck. These planes are called V/STOL, for vertical or short take off and landing.
To test that concept, the Navy said, it sketched V/STOL designs and concluded that the plane could fulfill many of the Navy's missions while operating from various-sized ships and forward sites used by the Marine Corps.
"To fully exploit V/STOL," the Navy further advised Carter, "the Navy must continue these design studies and establish dialogue with the aerospace companies in order to seek innovative and competitive alternative approaches to V/STOL."
In the past, U. S. aircraft companies have despaired of the on-again, off-again approach the Pentagon has taken toward spending money to develop V/STOL aircraft. But the technology has received fresh impetus from Soviet naval leaders.
Rather than follow the American lead and build supercarriers with catapults for launching heavy-fire air-craft, Soviet naval leaders are building smaller carriers for V/STOL air-craft. The Kiev-class carrier, about half the size of Nimitz-class carriers, are for V/STOL planes. In what may signal that the era of the giant air-craft carrier is drawing to a close, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in his final Pentagon budget, struck out the money armarked for building a fourth Nimitz-class carrier, which would have cost over $2 billion.
The Navy's advisory paper was among hundreds prepared for Carter's transition team at the Pentagon. U. S. News and World Report obtained copies of the papers from the Pentagon in censored form by requesting them under the Freedom on Information Act. The Washington Post also obtained a set of the papers.
In his posture statement elaborating on the Pentagon's fiscal 1978 budget, Rumsfeld noted not only the rising costs of the giant aircraft carrier, but also its vulnerability to modern Soviet weapons. He said that while the giant aircraft carriers will still play a vital role in the world for the next 20 years or so, "the broad thrust of the recently completed National Security Council study drives the decision down another path . . ."
He said that path will lead "to a larger total number of aircraft carriers, some of which are not as individually capable, and therefore are not so costly." He said the Navy plan is to build aircraft carriers between 40,00 and 50,000 tons, equipped with less-elaborate catapults, "as an alternative to additional large-deck carriers in the 1990s and beyond."
If the Navy's plan is followed, the first of the V/Stol carriers would be funded in next year's Pentagon budget. He said, the plan is to keep 12 of the present big carriers on duty "for more demanding missions" than the V/STOL carriers would carry out "throughthe 1990s."