WASHINGTON — For years, the Navy has commissioned weighty studies and picked the best brains it can find on "low-intensity conflicts," the less-than-total wars that erupt when superpowers become militarily engaged with lesser nations.
Yet in many ways--after all of the studies and after spending $582 billion to build toward a 600-ship fleet--the Navy finds itself ill-prepared to handle just such a delicate mission in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, some naval specialists believe, the Navy's problems with limited warfare have grown greater, not smaller, as a result of policies encouraged by the Reagan Administration.
Supercarrier armadas are too big to use in the gulf's cramped waters. Nuclear submarine fleets are irrelevant there. Even many of the Navy's smaller warships lack the versatility and self-defense capabilities needed to operate against Iran's seagoing guerrillas without running serious risks.
And the Navy's love affair with the carriers, which form the centerpiece of its offensive maritime strategies, has left the service short of the kinds of equipment and training it needs most for defensive activity in the Persian Gulf--minesweeping, helicopter combat and special operations.
"This kind of warfare is really not our strength," conceded one top Navy official. "It's psychological: It's at a relatively low order of force. And we're just not focused on that kind of warfare."
In part, defense experts say, this is the inevitable result of the Navy's focus on its primary missions: deterring nuclear war, protecting ocean supply lines to Europe in the event of a major conflict and--under the Reagan Administration--preparing to stop the Soviet navy before it could leave its North Atlantic sanctuaries if war between the superpowers should come.
But other factors, some of them harder to justify, are adding to the Navy's troubles, experts and some government officials say. And the result is that U.S. forces in the gulf may prove vulnerable to attack by the far less sophisticated forces of Iran.
One persistent problem is that the Navy's historic insistence on blue-water, go-it-alone strategies has made it resist working closely with other military services--an attitude that has been especially troublesome in planning for so-called special operations.
Navy Balks at Army Copters
Early this month, that resistance drove Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to override Navy objections and order the Middle East Force to accept Army special operations helicopters. These helicopters quickly scored two of the Middle East Force's most notable tactical victories against Iran's hit-and-run tactics--the capture of the mine-laying vessel Iran Ajr and the swift crippling of Iranian speedboats that fired at a U.S. helicopter.
The argument over using the helicopters started after U.S. intelligence analysts became suspicious that Iran was seeding the gulf with mines under cover of night. The Army offered the services of a special team of Army helicopter forces trained and equipped with night-vision gear. Navy officials balked, according to Pentagon sources, arguing that the helicopters might not be able to operate from Navy flight decks.
It was not until Crowe intervened that the Navy agreed to let the Army choppers aboard. "At a certain point, Crowe became incensed," recounted one knowledgeable source. "He said, 'Damn it, I don't care whether those are Air Force or Army assets; we've got to have some of those (helicopters) out there.' "
The Navy's attitude toward working with other services was also a major factor in the Oct. 1 firing of Adm. James A. (Ace) Lyons Jr. Navy sources say Lyons, who was Pacific Fleet commander, was forced into retirement after he scuffled with the Defense Department's top brass over which of the military services should run the Persian Gulf escort operation.
In August, Lyons argued the Navy should retain control over the operations of all ships in the Middle East Force. Instead, control of the escort operation went to the Florida-based Central Command, which has been responsible for running U.S. operations throughout most of the Middle East since it was established in 1983. It is commanded by Gen. George B. Crist, a Marine.
The Navy has also refused to place its own special operations forces, the Sea-Air-Land, or SEAL, commandos, under the command of the armed forces' joint-service military unit, the Special Operations Command, established on April 16 by congressional action and based in Tampa, Fla.
"The Navy has traditionally defined SEAL units as a fleet asset, and they're great at doing reconnaissance, onshore sabotage and other fleet missions," said one congressional expert. "But the fleet has not projected that they'd be zipping around looking for speedboats or swatting at (Swedish-manufactured) Boghammar patrol boats."