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ARLINGTON, Va. — The reported success of the Navy’s “sea swap” experiment could lay the groundwork for a radical program expansion as Navy and Marine Corps leaders look for ways to boost naval operational presence around the world.

The Navy experiment of leaving destroyers out to sea and swapping crews in and out has “worked exceedingly well,” setting in motion plans for possible expansion, Vice Adm. Timothy LaFleur, commander Naval Surface Force Pacific Fleet, said Wednesday.

Both Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee and Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, endorsed the idea of expanding sea swap to Expeditionary Strike Groups, another experimental program in which the Navy and Marine Corps have combined surface, submarine and maritime patrol aircraft with Amphibious Ready Groups and Marine Expeditionary Units.

LaFleur called the idea “promising,” but considers growing the program a big task. “With all the various folks involved in that, it would be a huge step from where we are today to that,” LaFleur said. “An entire ESG is a lot of folks, in the neighborhood of 5,000 folks.”

The Sea Swap program swaps a couple hundred at a time.

But preliminary reports indicate that aircraft would be unable to sustain 18-month deployments, LaFleur said.

In addition to applying the program to routine destroyer deployments, sea swap also could be an option for the Navy’s participation with ballistic missile defense, LaFleur said.

By end the end of 2005, the missile defense program is slated to have ready up to 10 SM-3 systems, designed to intercept and destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and by spring 2006, have 15 Navy destroyers equipped with the long-range tracking capability and three Navy cruisers equipped with the engagement capability.

Instead of taking those vessels, which LaFleur called the “silver bullets,” out of vitals areas, the Navy could swap in trained crewmembers.

Sea swap does not increase sailors’ sea time — only that of the vessel, and keep it out where it’s needed, he said.

The program eliminated, for example, the 45-day “long dead time” that it took the USS Higgins, for example, to sail from San Diego to the Persian Gulf.

It’s nearly 18 months at sea, the program for the San Diego-based destroyer produced four deployments-worth of on-station time for “less than the price of three,” according to a Navy fact sheet.

The Higgins spent 416 days in the Middle East region, about 116 days more than a destroyer would have under the normal deployment cycle.

The Pearl Harbor-based destroyer USS Fletcher also participated in sea swap. Two years ago, when Clark kicked off the program, Navy officials delayed plans to decommission the Fletcher and sent it for two years to the Persian Gulf. Crews from other Spruance-class destroyers then swapped places. The Fletcher is set to be decommissioned in June.

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