It ain't easy being an admiral ... especially when you're overseeing the most controversial naval deal in years.Rear Adm. Mark Milliken is director of the U.S. Navy's International Programs Office. When the Navy donates or sells retired ships to allied navies, Milliken's the guy who manages the transaction. This means handling some diplomatic hot potatoes -- none hotter than the ongoing transfer of Kidd-class detroyers to the Taiwanese navy.Two of the four Kidds sailed for Taiwan in October. The other pair is getting a facelift at Detyens shipyard in Charleston, S.C, before its 2007 handover. The Kidds will replace Taiwan's 60-year-old Gearing-class destroyers. Combined with recent procurement of Perry- and Knox-class frigates and French-built Lafayette frigates, the $415-million Kidd deal significantly improves Taiwan's ability to oppose a Chinese amphibious assault on the island.Which is why many Chinese -- including (full disclosure here) my girlfriend -- oppose the transfer.That much we all know. But getting Adm. Milliken to say it was next to impossible. In a recent interview, Milliken touted the Kidds' commonality with U.S. systems and their utility in the War on Terror(?). But even when I directly asked, he refused to even acknowledge that the Kidds might one day fight for control of the Taiwan Strait.Milliken isn't the only one treading lightly when it comes to the Kidds. This weekend, I called on Detyens to photograph the Kidds under renovation. At first, shipyard officials were happy to host me. Then someone from higher phoned down to have me kindly turned away.One manager told me that even the official launch ceremony for the first pair of destroyers was a deliberately low-key affair, with Taiwanese naval officers attending in civilian clothes. Desperate for material, I had to make do shooting pictures through Detyens' chain-link fence.The way Milliken describes them, ship transfers are a key facet of U.S. diplomacy. More than hardware changes hands. As part of the Kidd deal, as many as 1,200 Taiwanese sailors and officers all will have spent more than two years in Charleston learning English, training on the destroyers and adopting American ways of doing things. For friendly navies, accepting old American warships and other technology means becoming a virtual adjunct of the U.S. Navy. In this way, American naval power is far greater than our 280 hulls imply.Consider that just two classes of American warships provide the operational backbones of six important allied navies. Perry-class frigates equip the Taiwanese, Spanish, Polish and Australian navies. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are the basis for the most capable ships in the Japanese, Korean and (soon) Australian navies. And Spain's F100 frigates are built around the Burke's combat systems. So close are our naval ties to Spain that Alvaro de Bazan (F101) joined the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group for its May 2005 deployment.Look for ship-transfer diplomacy to become only more important in coming years as Milliken and his successors dispose of the many young hulls being retired by the shrinking U.S. Navy.-- David Axe
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