WASHINGTON -- After 50 years as the global symbol of America's military might, the aircraft carrier may soon be shoved off center stage by a new warship that would be able to rain 500 missiles within a matter of minutes on targets hundreds of miles away, without risking pilots' lives.
Prospects for that ship, which is still on the drawing board but could be in the fleet within five years, raise questions about how many new carriers the Navy will need. A carrier costs $4.5 billion to build and $440 million a year to operate. The new ship, essentially a missile barge, might cost only $500 million and just tens of millions a year to run.
The new ship would fire Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range artillery shells or rocket barrages against ammunition dumps, command posts and artillery, for instance, the same targets that warplanes flying off the carrier Roosevelt were bombing in Bosnia recently.
The nation's existing armada of warships, submarines and carrier-based fighter-bombers was built to fight the Soviet Union. The Navy of the future, however, will have to deal with a broader range of potential threats, from Iranian cruise missiles blocking access to Persian Gulf oil fields to a surprise attack on Seoul by North Korea to another showdown with Saddam Hussein.
Given declining military budgets, Americans' aversion to casualties among pilots and other combat forces, fast-improving anti-aircraft missiles and a new Navy doctrine that foresees fighting more wars near shore than out at sea, the Navy's top admiral, Jeremy M. Boorda, wants an inexpensive, versatile vessel bristling with firepower.
"I want it cheap and with lots of missiles," Admiral Boorda, the chief of naval operations, said in an interview. "This is certainly a modern equivalent to the battleship."
Unlike the big-gun behemoths that slugged it out with Japanese warships in World War II or belched Volkswagen-size shells during the Korean War, the Navy's newest dreadnought would lurk safely off a hostile shore, partly submerged to avoid detection, and rain 500 or more precision-guided missiles on enemy tanks, advancing troops or other targets. It could prove particularly valuable in the early stages of a crisis, before ground troops were in place.
It would travel with other ships and submarines for protection. Target data would be provided by other vessels, reconnaissance aircraft, pilotless drones or ground spotters.
The 825-foot arsenal ship, as its Navy designers call it, might require fewer than 20 people to operate, compared with the 5,000 aboard a 1,040-foot carrier. It would be equipped with the latest automated damage-control and firefighting systems, Admiral Boorda said.
Borrowing from commercial supertanker designs, it would have two sets of double hulls, allowing it to take a hit from a missile or a torpedo and keep on sailing.
Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Defense Budget Project, a research organization in Washington, said: "The arsenal ship is the same challenge to aircraft carriers as the first carrier was in the 1920s to battleships. It's not going to make the carrier extinct overnight, but it will make it a less important part of the battle fleet."
While Admiral Boorda says he has made no final decision to build the arsenal ship, other senior Navy officials say that serious planning could start later this year and that the fleet, which has 12 carriers, could receive the first of as many as half a dozen of the new vessels within five years.
Navy officials are hoping to build the new ship using commercial business practices, cutting through military red tape and holding down costs. By keeping the concept and the design decidedly simple, Admiral Boorda aims to keep the arsenal ship affordable.