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When Navy Secretary JOHN DALTON took delivery of Electric Boat's first Seawolf submarine in July, he praised the ship's stealthiness. He spoke little about its weapons systems, since it carries the same missiles and torpedoes as the Los Angeles-class subs it is replacing. Nor did he speak about how the Navy was helping to pay for Seawolf ($2.4 billion each): by scrapping 15 Los Angeles-class subs this year and next, some of which spent barely half their 30-year life-spans at sea. The cost to the taxpayer: about $2.4 billion.

The Navy is doing this with other vessels as well. For example, 24 guided-missile frigates bought during the Reagan Administration for about $7.2 billion are being retired after spending only 46% of their projected life at sea. Eight will have steamed for just 14 years of their expected 35 years of service.

Critics say the early retirements will help finance a wholesale rebuilding effort. Indeed, in its 1998 budget, the Navy is seeking $3 billion to replace the Seawolf with a third generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines. It argues that Russia's fledgling Akula and yet to be built Severodvinsk classes are "projected to outperform today's most advanced Western submarines in many respects." Someone should tell the Navy that the cold war is over.

--By Mark Thompson/Washington