By Jerene Jones
Updated May 24, 1982 12:00 PM

In the wake of the dramatic sea battles around the Falkland Islands, disturbing questions are being raised about the vulnerability of modern navies in an age of high-tech warfare. The sophisticated, computer-guided weapons that sank Argentina’s aging American-built cruiser General Belgrano (see following story) and blasted Britain’s H.M.S. Sheffield into a smoking hulk also torpedoed naval pride. Yet, even as sea warfare becomes a kind of grotesque video game with weapons launched by technicians miles away, the Reagan Administration is vigorously pursuing a $168 billion plan to rebuild America’s armada by adding two nuclear supercarriers and refurbishing World War II battleships such as the New Jersey. To appraise the efficacy of naval power today, PEOPLE went to the world’s leading expert, John Moore, 60, a retired Royal Navy captain and editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, the definitive fact-and-photo-filled almanac of the world’s navies. Moore, who lives in rural Sussex, follows founder Fred T. Jane, who in 1898 assembled the first of Jane’s volumes (others are on such topics as weapons and aircraft) that are routinely consulted by everyone from journalists to foreign intelligence agents. Moore, who hopes to publish the 85th nautical edition in July (at 825 pages it will cost around $100), talked to PEOPLE’S Jerene Jones about the implications of the Falklands fighting for navies everywhere.

Given the devastation in the Falklands, is it feasible today for the U.S. to consider building two new 90,000-ton supercarriers? Or should we concentrate on smaller ships whose loss might not be so costly?

If you build a carrier, you might as well make it a proper carrier. The 90,000-ton Nimitz is big enough to carry the entire Argentine Air Force. After all, one must remember that more than 50 percent of a ship’s real cost is the men on her, and that smaller ships are more easily sunk than bigger ships.

But aren’t big carriers sitting ducks for the kind of missile that sank the Sheffield?

If you look at the figures for the last war, of 30 major American carriers only five were sunk. The old Enterprise, for instance, was hit by Japanese kamikaze pilots and didn’t sink. The Yorktown sustained three bombs, two torpedoes and was being towed home when finally sunk by a submarine. The explosive power and accuracy of bombs used then wasn’t much different from today’s missiles. That’s not a bad track record for survival.

What about the destruction of the Sheffield by a $200,000 French-made Exocet missile, fired from 20 miles away?

The destruction of the Sheffield with a missile carrying a conventional warhead has not changed my mind about the future of naval warfare, but it has punched home the requirement for aerial surveillance at long range. The best way of dealing with an attack is by shooting down the attackers rather than the missile. If you scramble the aircraft aboard your carriers and home in on the attacker before his missile is within range, you can save yourself. The problem is that the Sheffield did not have adequate air cover; a large carrier like the Independence does because it carries its own. An aircraft carrier’s planes can maintain a protective patrol radius of 250 miles or more.

Why did the Sheffield burn so fast?

Many people are worried about warship design. The problem with today’s long, lean ships is stability. When you get the superstructure and all the radar antennae aboard, these craft develop “top weight” problems, and they can support fewer and fewer weapons systems. To cut weight, the upper works are built of aluminum alloy containing magnesium, which prevents damage from the action of the sea. But if there’s a fire, it’s like setting a match to a blowtorch. That’s a problem of the modern frigate. You have a small fire, then it goes whoof. This is true for British and American ships.

What would you suggest?

I like a hefty hull that can stand up to a lot of bashing—a short, fat ship.

Aside from the General Belgrano, what other American-made ships have gone to sea under foreign colors?

Ships have been sold to Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Pakistan, Taiwan and the Philippines—all over the world. It’s been a jolly good trade, but it has run out now. The new ships America has built are too complex and too expensive for most other countries, except places like Saudi Arabia.

Does the availability of missiles like the Exocet to Third World countries alter the balance of power? American military men say such an attack couldn’t hit U.S. ships.

If you’ve got plenty of air support, you can protect against this sort of attack. But things have altered irrevocably since Oct. 21, 1967, when the Israeli destroyer Eilat was sunk by an Egyptian-fired missile. What followed was a technological revolution that most navies can’t keep pace with. It’s all happening so fast. We know what this means if we look at various “choke points” such as the Straits of Hormuz [in the Persian Gulf] and the Panama Canal. There are small navies in these spots with an ever-increasing number of missile craft, often hidden by islands. They could deny passage to foreign ships and would have the power to blow them out of the water.

Do you feel that the U.S. plans to recommission four World War II battleships should be scrubbed in light of events in the Falklands?

People haven’t really worked out the problems of bringing battleships out of mothballs. There is a lot of uninformed opposition. These ships have certainly had little use, but they are of a size [45,000 tons, or four times the heft of the Belgrano] to absorb damage. Their heavy armor would limit the effects of a missile. Their speed of 33 knots is as much as any carrier but the nuclear-powered ones. They can travel 15,000 miles at 17 knots, which is a considerable asset. The cost of converting the New Jersey would be less than the cost of building a new frigate, and refurbishing the Iowa less than constructing a new cruiser. They have got hulls heavy enough to carry today’s missiles. The greater the bulk of the hulls, the more missiles they can carry.

What are the world’s strongest fleets?

It is impossible to rank the world’s navies in terms of effectiveness. The U.S. Navy has an absolute lead in carriers [13], while the Soviet Navy has an absolute lead in submarines—350 vs. NATO’s 209, and growing at a rate of 10 or 11 a year. But the Soviet Navy takes in some 100,000 conscripts for a three-year period every year; most of them come from poorly educated eastern sections of the country, and they have to be taught basic Russian before they can even begin on anything else. They’re ace on wolves, but rotten on radar. China, the other most-populous nation, is No. 3 in submarines [102], and its sailors are enthusiastic and have been sailing for far longer than most of the rest of us.

Where would Argentina rank?

People forget that the Argentine Navy started about 150 years ago, so it’s no new kid. At the turn of the century it had two of the world’s most impressive battleships. Today it has two modern British destroyers, two modern French frigates, two modern submarines, an old British carrier and some old American destroyers—and a reasonable air force and naval air arm.

What are the broad implications of the Falk lands events for the Royal Navy, whose surface strength has been slashed in favor of a build-up of submarine-borne strategic missiles?

In the 1960 defense review it was envisaged that the Royal Navy would be employed principally in the northeast Atlantic, ignoring the 13 dependencies around the world—including Hong Kong and Montserrat, as well as the Falklands—that rely on Britain for protection. Until such time as we get jump-jets like the Harriers that are supersonic, the lack of large-deck carriers such as those the Americans have is inevitably going to have an adverse effect on British naval operations outside NATO.

How do you get your information?

I write to every navy, coast guard and maritime police force in the world. It’s amazing the number of people who have the grace to answer. I write to 850 builders of ships and weapons systems. Then there are my correspondents—about 100 people around the world, including retired admirals, civil servants, bank managers, university people, correspondents for defense magazines and an architect who travels the world and is interested in ships. A 15-year-old boy in West Germany named Carl Schwenk is doing all the drawings for the German ships. Some years ago a young man in Russia used to send me pictures. Then it all stopped suddenly. I found the bugger had defected. He was well-placed in the bureaucracy and would pass the pictures on to a friend who passed them on to another friend. They would come to me in the mail from all over Europe. It was genuine information and very useful. I have, of course, been led up the garden path by KGB informants, but it only takes about two seconds when you read the letter to know where it came from.

Is there any information you can’t use?

Well, one little old lady in Ohio asked if I could enlighten her about the bars and brothels in Boston Harbor frequented by sailors in the 19th century. I wrote back that I haven’t yet started All the World’s Brothels, and that I couldn’t help her.