States’ fight over carrier to intensify

The Virginia and Florida delegations have been battling for months over where to dock a Navy nuclear aircraft carrier. Norfolk, Va., is vying to remain the only nuclear aircraft carrier base on the East Coast, but faces competition from the Mayport Naval Station in Florida.

Whichever state ends up winning the right to house the carrier can expect a boost to the local economy of nearly $1 billion a year.

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Virginians are concerned that the East Coast fleet will dwindle in the future with the potential move of another carrier from the East Coast to the West Coast. Virginia now hosts five carriers, but could go down to three if one goes to the West Coast, as expected, and another goes to Florida.

The Florida delegation must convince defense authorizers and appropriators that as defense budgets shrink, it would be efficient to pour additional funding into supporting one nuclear carrier at Mayport.

Virginians argue that it does not make fiscal sense to spend money to ready another naval base for a nuclear carrier. They also have long argued that the decision is political.

The Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, and the most likely to go to Florida, is named after President George H.W. Bush. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the 41st president’s son and President George W. Bush’s brother, made no secret of the fact that he wanted to see the carrier in Florida. The newest carrier will stay housed in Virginia for several years.

A definitive decision will be made in an upcoming sweeping Pentagon review of military strategy and capabilities, but congressional defense authorizers have given Mayport some leverage. Authorizers agreed to allow $46.3 million for a project in the defense policy bill that would dredge a water channel and, in theory, help accommodate an aircraft carrier.

That could make it more difficult not to move one of the carriers to Florida in the future.

Not so quick, said Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, a defense authorizer.

In a statement entered into the Senate’s record, Webb stressed that funding the dredging project should not be mistaken for a go-ahead on housing a nuclear carrier at Mayport. The Senate is debating the 2010 military construction budget.

Webb argues that Navy officials assured him the dredging and some pier improvements are necessary to ready Mayport for unforeseen emergencies, including port visits by an aircraft carrier. He said it is “time to set the record straight” in asserting that the funds for dredging are not a first step toward putting a carrier in Mayport.

“There is no cause-and-effect linkage between the Navy’s home-porting proposal with the authorization and appropriation of fiscal year 2010 military construction funds to dredge the channel at Mayport,” Webb said. “The Navy’s home-porting scheme is being reviewed separately as part of the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review. Dredging Mayport’s channel will have no influence on its evaluation.”

The fight is linked to the Navy’s decision late last year to disperse its fleet. The Navy decided that for strategic and security reasons, it did not make sense to house all its aircraft carriers on the East Coast in one location, a move that gave Florida the advantage.

Florida lawmakers see the dredging as a sign that the decision to put a nuclear carrier at Mayport is coming.

“It’s important for national security reasons that the Navy’s Atlantic nuclear fleet have more than one home port,” said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), in an e-mail statement Monday. “That’s why Mayport needs to be made ready. You can’t homeport a carrier at Mayport without first upgrading the base. The decision on whether to put a nuclear carrier there is imminent.”

Still, Florida will need at least $500 million for dredging and to build special maintenance facilities as well as make road improvements in order to house a carrier at Mayport.

Winning the carrier is important to Florida, as the Mayport station has already seen losses.

Mayport was home to the conventionally powered John F. Kennedy carrier until it was decommissioned last March. Mayport will lose other ships, too. Ten frigates will be decommissioned by 2014, and the number of sailors will go down from 13,300 to fewer than 9,300.

Unless a carrier or other ships are added, the ship-repair industry around the area will deteriorate. Nelson and the Florida delegation have argued that having too many carriers in one port could create a strategic target for an enemy of the U.S.

Webb argued that defense authorizers agreed to dredging funding based on “assurances provided by the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations that the dredging is needed for current operational considerations irrespective of a final decision on carrier home-porting at Mayport.”

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“The need to sustain Naval Station Mayport is clear. Before investing what could be up to $1 billion to support a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, however, the Navy should first properly maintain its existing shore facilities,” Webb said. “As the Navy’s own studies reveal, there are other more fiscally responsible and strategically sound home-porting options for Mayport, including the assignment of a large-deck amphibious ship or Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) surface combatants.”

The heart of next year’s debate will be whether it would be efficient to authorize funds for the construction of nuclear facilities at Mayport, said a congressional source.

Some congressional aides have started questioning the rationale of building nuclear facilities at Mayport when nuclear carriers are deployed for 18 months at a time and spend only six months in port. They have started looking into what would happen to those facilities while the carrier is at sea. It could be difficult to maintain a skilled workforce for long periods of downtime.