The Rickover team, which has been ruling Navy nuclear shipbuilding for 25 years, is breaking up.
Navy officials confirmed yesterday that at least five deputies of Adm. H. G. Rickover, the 79-year-old czar of nuclear propulsion, are leaving before this month is out.
Rickover himself may depart when his extended active duty tour expires in January, although this has not been confirmed.
Among those departing is William Wegner, deputy director of Rickover's Naval Reactors Division. He long was considered Rickover's heir apparent.
Wegner insisted he and others are leaving to take advantage of the "early out" retirement benefits offered by the Department of Energy. Although they work for Rickover, Wegner and other topaides are on the DOE payroll.
Some Navy officials with lines into Rickover's highly secretive operation linked the departures to a power play within the Navy under which the Rickover team is virtually being frozen out of the design of the next attack submarine.
Without Rickover's blessing, sources said, Navy leaders have asked for an alternative to the admiral's Los Angeles attack submarine, which would cost $500 million each. More than 20 designs are being considered, with the emphasis on cutting the cost and size of the attack sub.
"It's a case of thanks but no thanks to Rickover and his boys," said one insider of the development effort. "So his shop is breaking itself up."
Asked if Rickover wants to remain on active duty after his latest tour expires in January, when the admiral turns 80, longtime aide David T. Leighton replied: "That's a question which should be addressed to the secretary of the Navy."
If it had really been up to the secretary of the Navy to decide whether Rickover remained in power, he would have been retired years ago. Paul H. Nitze, who was Navy secretary from 1963 to 1967, is among those who tried to force Rickover's retirement, only to be frustrated by the admiral's allies in Congress.
Rickover did not respond to a Washington Post query yesterday about possible retirement plans. The Navy did confirm the retirement of Wegner, effective Aug. 31, and the retirements of these other top deputies:
Richard W. Bass, associate director for commissioned submarines; Robert S. Brodsky, assistant director for reactor safety and computation; Philip R. Clark, associate director for reactors and Murray E. Miles, chief of the nuclear technology branch.
Bass already has retired and the others will leave Aug. 31, the deadline for qualifying for "Doe s "early out" retirement benefits.
It is an open secret that Defense Secretary Harold Brown and much of the rest of the Pentagon's civilian hierarchy would breathe a sigh of relief if Rickover did retire.
"He's so implacable," said one top Pentagon research executive who would like to find cheaper alternatives to the 688 class attack and $1.5 billion Trident missile submarines Rickover championed.
Brown and Navy Secretary W. Graham Claytor, who soon will become deputy secretary of defense, have been watching the changeover on Rickover's team from the sidelines.
"They're leaving it up to Hayward," said one Pentagon source, when asked what restructuring would occur in the wake of the departures. Adm. Thomas B. Hayward is chief of naval operations, the uniformed Navy's top executive.
Rickover has clashed frequently over the years with chiefs of naval operations as well as with his civilian bosses. Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, one chief of naval operations who battled Rickover, has said Rickover is the Navy's J. Edgar Hoover "who has stayed too long."
Rickover's allies, in rebuttal, point to Rickover's brilliant record of reliability and safety in the design and construction of nuclear power plants for submarines and surface ships. The admiral's power base in Congress has eroded over the last several years, however, through the departures of many of his old allies there and because of second thoughts about the wisdom of building submarines as big and expensive as the 688 class and Trident. CAPTION: Picture, ADM. H. G. RICKOVER...five of his deputies retiring