ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS - On a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier a thousand miles from the U.S. Naval Academy, Lt. Cmdr. Chuck Lynch insists it no longer matters that he attended the elite military college - or that many of his officer peers did not.
"I don't even think of it that way," he said. "Most of the time, I don't even know if they're from Annapolis unless they've got the ring."
Lynch does not wear his heavy, gem-capped 1984 class ring - he doesn't want it setting him apart.
The question of whether academy graduates stand apart from the crowd of officers in today's fleet is more than just the subject of wardroom banter. At a time when the armed forces are searching for ways to cut costs, several observers have revisited the perennial issue, questioning whether Annapolis and the other service academies achieve their lofty goal of producing the best possible officers.
The answers are often ambiguous. Although officers from the academies appear to stay in the military longer and get promoted faster than those from ROTC or postgraduate officer-training programs, some skeptics have questioned whether the difference is enough to justify the greater expense of the academy system. No data show, and few experts would argue, that academy graduates stand head and shoulders above their peers in terms of performance.
But others argue that regardless of cold cost-benefit analysis, the officer corps work best when they draw members from diverse training sources.
"You need all three (ROTC, Officer Candidate School and the academies)," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist and professor at Northwestern University. "They all bring different strengths."
A high cost per officer
The cost issue was first highlighted in a 1991 General Accounting Office study that determined that taxpayers spend $197,000 for every new officer who graduates from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. - three times the amount spent on a Navy ROTC scholarship graduate, and seven times the cost of commissioning someone through Officer Candidate School (OCS).
Academy students pay no tuition but are required to serve at least five years in the military upon graduation.
The difference in government expense was even more stark for the other services. The four-year cost of education at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, which have larger staffs and campuses, was calculated at about $299,000 per student.
For some critics, the cost differential is enough to question the need for service academies.
ROTC, OCS graduates gaining
Originally, the prestigious military colleges were intended to produce a solid force of career warriors; the other training programs were developed later to fill out the corps with officers typically expected to serve only a few years.
But in recent decades, more and more ROTC and even OCS graduates have gained ground, filling the upper ranks once dominated by academy graduates.
Though academy graduates typically enter the officer corps with greater military and technical knowledge than their peers, "after a few tours, the differences wash out," said John Allen Williams, a professor of political science at Chicago's Loyola University.
Thirty years ago, 95 percent of the Army's three-star generals came from West Point; now, only a third do.
Neither the newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Hugh Shelton nor his two predecessors nor the vice chairman have academy pedigrees.
Retired Gen. Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former Army chief of staff, took ROTC courses at City College of New York.
"In my opinion, there's no discernible difference" between officers who come from different commissioning sources, said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
Now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Korb suggests an overhaul of the entire system - closing the academies and sending all trainees to college on ROTC scholarships, then to a one-year academy where all could receive an equal immersion in military culture.
A ringing defense of academies
But academy officials and outside supporters respond with cost-benefit arguments of their own.
Two years ago, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, mustered a panel of 26 academics and retired officers, headed by former defense secretary Dick Cheney, to undertake a sweeping review of professional military education - prompted by the changing needs of a post-Cold War military and various scandals at the service academies.
At the time, Annapolis was still reeling from the discovery of a cheating ring, and all the schools had struggled with instances of sexual harassment or hazing.
Released this spring, the report came out as a ringing defense of the academy system. It contended that the GAO had underestimated the cost of ROTC by counting only the cost of scholarship money and not including the program's administrative costs or the nonmilitary federal and state tax dollars that help fund the civilian colleges that ROTC beneficiaries attend.
The report also argued that the academies are worth the extra expense because their graduates stay in the service longer and reach higher ranks.
Of 100 Naval Academy graduates, 40 typically will stay in long enough to be promoted to lieutenant commander, the fourth step on the Navy's hierarchy of commissioned officers; the Navy would have to start with 140 ROTC graduates, or 153 OCS graduates, to get that many lieutenant commanders.
Of the new naval officers commissioned in 1984, 43 percent of Naval Academy graduates are still on active duty vs. 33 percent of NROTC graduates and 2 percent of the year's OCS class, according to Navy figures.
That kind of longevity helps justify an academy education, especially considering the expensive training most junior officers undergo after college, said Walter Winfield Price III, a management consultant and former Navy officer who graduated from the academy.
"When you look at the cost of educating a fighter pilot or a nuclear submariner - both of which outweigh the Naval Academy education - you want them to stay," he said.