The Reagan administration will greatly expand the nation's Rapid Deployment Force early next year when it sends the first of 13 huge cargo ships of a new three-ocean fleet to the eastern Atlantic loaded with Marine Corps weapons.
Four of the new vessels will sail from Wilmington, N.C., in February or March and remain on call indefinitely in the eastern Atlantic in case their cargo is needed in a region from NATO's northern flank to Africa.
These floating warehouses filled with the heavy and bulky equipment needed by the military -- tanks, trucks, cannon, ammunition, water, fuel and food -- cost more than $100 million each and are the first ships modified and loaded expressly for the Marine Corps. Others will be deployed in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific between now and 1986.
The purpose of the Rapid Deployment Force and its current expansion is to permit the United States to respond quickly to any crisis. The new ships will permit the stockpiling of heavy equipment near likely trouble spots all around the world so that Marines flown to the area would not run out of essential supplies on a remote battlefield before planes or ships from the United States could resupply them. The Marines would fly to the trouble zone carrying little more than their rifles and radios.
This floating-warehouse concept was started 20 years ago but aborted in 1967 by Congress, which feared that such ships could drag the nation into other Vietnams. Then-president Jimmy Carter resurrected the program by ordering the U.S. military to be ready to protect Persian Gulf oil fields.
Lacking any foreign bases from which to send American forces into threatened Persian Gulf countries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with the concept of anchoring ships filled with combat gear off the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Those ships, which were designed to serve both Army and Marine forces, will be replaced by the new generation of cargo ships.
The ships are called MPS for Maritime Preposition Ships and represent a new dimension for providing faster response capability for existing U.S. military forces. Congress so far has strongly supported putting four MPS ships in the eastern Atlantic, five to replace the 17 old ships off Diego Garcia and four in the western Pacific.
Civilian and military leaders are debating whether the four MPS ships slated to be on call in the eastern Atlantic should anchor off one port month after month, stay at sea most of the time or rotate among a number of ports in several countries. Spain is out as an anchorage, according to administration officials, but the Portuguese island of Madeira is one of the leading possibilities.
The cargo ships will be unarmed and manned by civilian crews. In times of crisis, Navy warships would protect them at anchor and escort them to the trouble zone.
Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, yesterday stressed the noncombat nature of the MPS ships and said he favored rotating them among several ports in the eastern Atlantic to enable several countries to share in the multimillion-dollar business of supporting the vessels.
"I see it as a straight business proposition," Perle said. He added that perhaps requests for proposals to support the ships in eastern Atlantic ports should be solicited.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy and Marine leaders have been discussing the basing options for the ships, Perle said, but have not yet sent a recommendation to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. A State Department official said negotiations for use of foreign ports have been suspended until the Pentagon makes its decision.
Under the Pentagon's contingency planning, the four cargo ships on call in the eastern Atlantic would start steaming toward the trouble area before a conflict escalated. They would tie up at the nearest friendly port or anchor as close as possible to the trouble spot where smaller ships and helicopters would unload them.
With the tons of weapons and supplies from the ships, the Marines could fight for 30 days without being resupplied by planes or other ships. Each of the three squadrons of supply ships would support a contingent of 16,500 Marines and sailors.
The four cargo ships scheduled to go to the eastern Atlantic have been modified so they can accommodate everything from tanks to fuel trucks to artillery pieces. When loaded, each of the four ships will displace between 42,000 and 51,000 tons, or about half the size of an aircraft carrier.
The new cargo ships designed to give the Marines a longer, stronger reach around the world were preceded by the Fast Deployment Logistics ships proposed in 1964 by Army and Navy leaders trying to compensate for the shortage of overseas bases. Then-defense secretary Robert S. McNamara approved the FDLs, as did Congress for a brief period.
In 1967, as the Vietnam war expanded, Congress canceled the FDL program. "If it is easy for us to go anywhere and do anything," said Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.), then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, "we will always be going somewhere and doing something."
Carter, in the wake of the embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, said in his 1980 State of the Union message that he was prepared to go to war to protect Persian Gulf oil. His declaration launched this new attempt to use floating warehouses to support the projection of U.S. power to distant corners of the globe.