THE NAVY'S HOMEPORTS

AS THE NAVY'S HOMEPORT PROGRAM moves toward a decision on the floor of Congress, sorting out the arguments that deserve support, pro or con, becomes more and more difficult.

The plan calls for construction or expansion of bases or "homeports - 12 projects in all - for naval fleet units along the country's seacoasts. The purpose of the ports is to accommodate the Reagan administration's objective of expanding the Navy from 450 to 600 ships. At the same time, the Navy's ships would be dispersed over a greater number of home ports than at present, supposedly assuring survival of at least some elements of the fleet in the event of attack. Cost of building the bare operational requirements for the new or expanded home ports is put by the Navy at $799 million. The total estimated cost, when items like housing and recreational facilities are taken into account, would be from $1.5 billion to $2 billion.First of the all-new proposed homeports would be an aircraft carrier base at Everett, Wash., and a port at Staten Island in the New York harbor, which would house the recommissioned battleship Iowa, among other ships.

This should not be regarded simply as a pork barrel scheme - it's called a ''home pork" program by some - contrived by the Navy to win support for its fleet expansion, as critics have charged. The proposed homeport for the Iowa, with its nuclear weaponry, has, for example, generated vehement opposition as well as support in New York.

Dispersal of the fleet seems a sound enough idea, especially in terms of speedy response in an emergency. But dispersal to a prime nuclear missile target like New York? Several times in recent months, as funding for the start of the homeport program made its troubled way through congressional committees, it was reported that the Navy wanted to avoid the kind of concentration that led to such heavy losses in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But what happened then is no guide for naval deployment in an age where an enemy superpower could launch an array of nuclear missiles aimed at dozens of targets.

Incidentally, a comment by Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a fervent opponent of the homeport program, was disturbing. He pointed out in June that communities that don't come up with their local share of the costs could lose their homeports. That hardly seems a responsible way to determine the location of facilities important to the national defense. If a site is chosen as strategically desirable for a homeport, then assuredly the total cost should be borne by the federal government. To choose a Navy homeport on the basis of how much money the local citizenry can put up makes the whole procedure sound like a city bidding for the Olympic games.

The proposals to release homeport funds for the New York and Everett projects have had to travel a decidedly bumpy road in Congress.

The opposition has sprung from a belief that the whole concept was not justified from a defense standpoint and was just too costly. Release of the start-up funds was delayed temporarily in the Senate Armed Services Committee in May when the committee split, 9 to 9, on making the funds available. A House Armed Services subcommittee voted in June to delete funds for the Everett project from the 1987 defense appropriation, noting that the state of Washington had to come up with a commitment of $30 million to $50 million before the federal funds could be appropriated. The Democrat-controlled House adopted a bill that eliminated both the New York and Everett homeports. However, the Republican-controlled Senate this month restored the start-up appropriations for both projects, with minor reductions. And there the matter stands, ready for a House-Senate conference committee.

The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, was asked by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., last year to audit the Navy's projections of the costs of the homeport program. It concluded that the Navy had underestimated the costs. The GAO concluded that the Navy had not "adequately demonstrated" its homeport budgetary estimates or the strategic planning on which the program was based.

Given that negative opinion, the sharp divisions within Congress, and the less-than-unanimous public reaction, it would seem that the Navy should review the homeport program, revise it as necessary, and do a much better job of explaining just why it is needed from a national security standpoint. That must include justification of costs, needless to say.

Homeporting may be a valid concept, but the Navy has left itself wide open to its critics this time.

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