THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 TAG: 9610290268 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY DALE EISMAN, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: WASHINGTON LENGTH: 167 lines
Tom Swift, call the Pentagon. Sixty-two years later, your country is interested in your idea.
Committed to slimming America's military presence on Okinawa, but still needing a base to project power in the western Pacific, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry is pushing the defense establishment to consider building a floating airport near the Japanese island.
Engineering firms around the world already are hard at work on the design. Their plans are even more grand than Tom Swift's: a 3,000-foot landing strip, storage space for 26 million gallons of fuel and hundreds of tanks, and a propulsion system that would hold the base steady in rocky seas or let the military move it around the world.
But the basic idea is remarkably similar to the fictional young inventor's: a series of pontoons strung together and topped with a flat deck long enough to accommodate aircraft operations.
``It has potential. It's the type of thinking (about the future) that we ought to be doing,'' Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak suggested during a session with reporters last month.
It's also the type of thinking that sends chills down the spines of the Navy's aircraft carrier advocates, and at least raises eyebrows among executives at Newport News Shipbuilding, which has a monopoly on carrier contracts.
The yard sees the mobile base as an opportunity for new business, not a threat to the carrier program, said Mike Shawcross, its director of naval marketing. ``We've looked at this for many years,'' he said. ``We could certainly build portions of it.''
With a penciled-in price of $2 billion to $3 billion, the mobile base would cost roughly half as much as a new carrier but boast a landing strip more than three times as long, or enough to accommodate C-130 cargo planes.
The base also would have parking space for six times as many planes as a carrier, could carry seven times the carrier's load of jet fuel, and could store six times as much ordnance. Its berthing would accommodate not only pilots and air maintenance crews but also hundreds of ground troops, along with the artillery and other weapons they would require.
The possibilities clearly intrigue Krulak, who since taking charge of the Marine Corps in 1995 has pushed junior officers to rethink the way his service operates.
Each of the 300- by 500-foot platforms that would be linked to form the mobile base could be built for perhaps $300 million or less; a single platform could serve as a floating helipad for Marine attack and supply helicopters and a storage depot for guns and ammo, giving the Marines a permanent station they could position near a persistent trouble spot like Bosnia.
The Navy is decidedly less interested, though it is participating in the Pentagon's study of mobile bases. While pushing for news coverage of such other innovative programs as the missile-laden ``arsenal ship'' and its automated ``Smart Ship,'' service spokesmen have effectively blocked reporters from interviewing Navy officials studying the mobile base idea.
``I don't think the Navy's too keen on paying for it,'' Shawcross said.
Whatever building the base might cost, hundreds of millions of dollars more would be needed to produce what he called ``a mature design''; several Navy programs - among them the arsenal and smart ships, a new attack submarine, and a next-generation aircraft carrier - already are competing for money.
Still, the idea has believers even in the Navy, said retired Adm. William Owens, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he left the service early this year. He counts himself among them.
The mobile base ``does not replace aircraft carriers,'' Owens said: The Navy's flattops are unrivaled in their ability to move quickly into trouble spots around the world to deter conflict or pound an aggressor from the air until ground troops arrive.
But with defense dollars scarce, Owens acknowledged that a mobile base placed in the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean might keep the Navy from having to run carriers into those troublesome regions quite so often. And that, other defense insiders suggest, might let the Navy get by with fewer than the 12 carriers it now maintains.
``I do hear rumors around town that we can't afford all these forces,'' Owens said.
Determined to avoid a fight with the powerful carrier lobby, Houston-based oil rig builder Brown & Root insists that the base it envisions would be no more than ``a floating logistics base.''
``That's the way we have billed it, lobbied it, designed it,'' said Edward I. Hickey, the firm's logistics operations director.
In the lobby of Brown & Root's Washington office is a model of a base that Hickey said would be parked hundreds of miles from any war zone, holding troops, equipment and supplies until needed.
The project uses the same technology the company has long put into floating oil platforms. Brown & Root would fashion the base by joining six such platforms, each featuring one or two storage floors below the flight deck but above the water. Massive pillars would support the platform atop a pair of pontoons submerged about 100 feet beneath the sea's surface.
A series of thrusters attached to the pontoons would hold the platform steady in the water or could move it along at 8 knots in calm seas. Hickey said the structure would be so massive and its draft so deep that even in 40-foot seas it essentially would be motionless.
Better yet from a military standpoint, the platform would be all but unsinkable. ``You can't break the keel,'' as submariners like him were taught to do in attacking surface ships, said Owens. A torpedo hitting one of the pontoons would make the platform list only about 5 degrees, he added.
Dozens of senior military officials and members of Congress have dropped by Brown & Root's offices to study the model in recent months. One cutaway section shows hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces stored below the main deck. Notably absent are fighter aircraft.
``This is a Diego Garcia at sea,'' Hickey said, referring to the Indian Ocean island where the United States has positioned tanks, guns and other provisions for an Army brigade to use in the event of a new war with Iraq.
Even if virtually unsinkable, the mobile base would be such a big and inviting target, he suggested, that it would be unwise to have it positioned close to land in a place like the Persian Gulf.
``It's something that I don't think the Joint Chiefs would put in harm's way,'' agreed Shawcross of Newport News.
But Owens countered that the base could be defended easily. Its deck would have plenty of space for missile defense systems like the Army's Patriot, he said, and it also could be fitted with the same Aegis missile system the Navy uses to defend ships from sea and air attacks.
Though the basic technology for a floating platform is long-proven, Hickey acknowledged that joining the massive structures to form a 3,000-foot landing strip presents a challenge to engineers. The individual sections are so massive that any shearing action in the water below would put incredible stress on whatever mechanism was being used to link them.
Tom Swift foresaw the same problem for his airport, solving it by linking his pontoons with powerful electromagnets. If the weather got too severe, he explained to Ned, ``I'll just separate my different sections of the landing field and let them rise and fall on the waves until the disturbance is over. Then I'll bring them together again.''
Electromagnets aren't part of Brown & Root's plan, but Hickey acknowledged that with planes grounded during rough weather anyway, the mobile base sections might simply be uncoupled and allowed to float free until it was safe to rejoin them.
Though engineering is the most apparent vexation to the base's development, the project may have to overcome some diplomatic obstacles, as well.
While the Pentagon's attention has been focused on a mobile base to reduce America's presence on Okinawa, some Japanese engineers are working on a design for a fixed offshore base that would be located just off the island's coast, Hickey said.
And the Japanese apparently are willing to put their money behind their ideas. Their government has suggested it might bear part of the cost of a fixed base off Okinawa, giving the Pentagon a powerful incentive to move in that direction.
Tom Swift, of course, bore all the expense of his base, then donated the finished product to the government.
Maybe the Pentagon should be calling him. ILLUSTRATION: JOHN EARLE
It's possible: a 3,000-foot landing strip atop a series of pontoons,
which also could store 26 million gallons of fuel and be moved
around the world. But what would it mean for the future of aircraft
TOM SWIFT AND HIS OCEAN AIRPORT
The last message on Tom Swift's wireless left little doubt. His
aviator friend Jerry Mason had been forced down in the mid-Atlantic
by an unknown foe. Ashore hundreds of miles away, Tom and sidekick
Ned Newton had been powerless to help.
Tom was momentarily speechless, but then came ``a new and strange
look on the face of the young inventor.
`` `Oh, if only there had been a mid-ocean airport,' he said.
`` `A what?' exclaimed Ned.
`` `A mid-ocean airport,' repeated Tom Swift. `A floating landing
place where poor Jerry might have put his plane down and received
help to thwart his relentless enemy. By golly Ned, I have an idea!
`` `I'm going to see if I can work out a plan by which such a
thing might be made. I'd need the government's help and support, of
course. But if I could construct something like a raft of floating
pontoons in mid-ocean, then airplanes in distress, when making a
flight from America to Europe, would be comparatively safe. Golly
Ned, I'm going to try it!' '' by CNB