The House voted yesterday to end the era of the giant nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
By a vote of 252 to 161, the House decided to go along with President Carter rather than Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, outspoken advocate of a nuclear-powered Navy, and cut money for the nuclear carriers from the fiscal 1977 defense budget.
If yesterday's decision survives what are expected to be less severe challenges in future House and Senate voting, the U.S. Navy will make a highly significant change in course.
Instead of continuing to build Nimitz-class nuclear carriers at $2 billion or more a copy, the Navy would switich to smaller and cheaper carriers with planes that could take off and land without using today's catapults and arresting gear.
"We are embarking on the V/STOL era," said Chairman George H. Mahon (D-Tex.) of the House Appropriations Committee in applauding the switch from giant to medium-size aircraft carriers. V/STOL is a designation for vertical and short takeoff and landing aircraft.
Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.), in arguing that it is too early to abandon the Nimitz class in favor of a paper concept, urged his House colleagues to vote for his amendment requiring the Carter administration to spend the full $350 million appropriated last year for a fourth Nimitz carrier.
The $350 million was contained in the fiscal 1977 Pentagon budget. In reviewing that budget, Carter decided $268.4 million of the $350 million should be used to buy spare parts for Nimitz-class carriers already at sea or under construction rather than start a new ship. The remaining $81.6 million woud be saved.
The vote on the Chappell amendment was this year's first big test of House sentiment toward cutting the Pentagon budget.However, it was not a pure test of Carter's strength in this regard since former President Ford had reversed his earlier position on building anothere Nimitz carrier and recommended against it in submitting his final budget to Congress in January.
Mahon, Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jack Edwards (R-Ala.) took the lead in the House debate in urging a switch away from the giant nuclear carriers championed by Rickover and his allies.
Mahon argued that the only way to make sure the Navy has enough warships to cover the world's oceans and to survive a war fought with advanced weapons was to build a lot of ships.
Soviet anti-ship cruise missiles, Mahon argued, make the 91,400-ton Nimitz vulnerable along with smaller ships. He said two smaller, non-nuclear carriers could be built for the price of another Nimitz, which he predicted would cost well over $2 billion.
Carter "is moving away" from the Nimitz admirals, said Mahon," as we moved away from the battleship admirals." Mahon said that civilian lawmakers should not "kow-tow" to the Nimitz admirals.
"Let's get rid of these big sitting ducks that are so vulnerable to Russlan weapons," urged Addabbo in discussing future Navy shipbuilding. He said the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers already at sea or under construction will last far into the future.
"We plan a slow evolution from large, nuclear-powered carriers to smaller but still quite large conventionally powered carriers," Addabbo said. The Carter administration plans to build two non-nuclear carriers of between 50,000 and 60,000 tons instead of a fourth Nimitz-class carrier. The medium-sized carriers would handle today's fighter bombers and the new generation of V/STOL aircraft the Navy intends to develop.
In supporting a fourth Nimitz carrier, Chappell said each medium carrier and its fuel would end up costing almost as much as the Nimitz and therefore would be a poor investment.
Rep. Robert W. Daniel Jr. (R-Va.) complained that the suggested alternative to the Nimitz "is a paper ship with paper aircraft" which would buy "half the capabilities for the same amount of money."
Rep. Samuel S. Stratton (D-N.Y.), one of several lawmakers who quoted Rickover's views in urging continuance of the Nimitz class, said that the admiral had made a telling point in asserting that "if cost is the only consideration, why don't we go back to sail?