Virginia, Florida set to battle over decision on nuclear aircraft carrier

Virginia’s and Florida’s congressional leaders are set for a fight over the proposed move of a Navy nuclear aircraft carrier from Virginia to Florida.

A sweeping blueprint of military strategy and capabilities known as the Quadrennial Defense Review on Monday recommended that one aircraft carrier should be based in the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla. “to mitigate the risk of a terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster.” 

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In a press release on Monday, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said he’d work to fight the recommendation.

Webb said he planned to grill both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the issue Tuesday when they testify on the 2011 budget request.

Webb, a defense authorizer, said he also asked for a Pentagon briefing this week.  He said the QDR recommendation is “not a done deal.”

“The president’s budget request will have to be authorized and appropriated by the Congress; and my colleagues and I in the Virginia delegation have been working assiduously all year to make sure that these key strategic questions are addressed and also that these funding issues are balanced out,” Webb said in his press release Monday.

Norfolk, Va. is currently the only homeport for aircraft carriers assigned to the East Coast.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), another defense authorizer, has been pushing for a carrier in Florida for years.

Nelson has been quoted in the media hailing the QDR recommendation. “It is a huge win for Jacksonville and a huge win for America,” he said. The decision was made “the highest level of the White House,” he added.

The Navy had already decided that it wanted to send a nuclear aircraft carrier to Florida, but the Virginia delegation has fought to stop that decision and extracted a promise from Pentagon leaders to study the issue as part of the QDR.

The QDR recommendation now will spark a fight between the two Senate Armed Services Committee Democrats and probably an intense lobbying campaign to get votes in their favor.

Webb argued that Florida will need about $1 billion dollars to prepare Mayport to become a homeport for an nuclear aircraft carrier.  

“I would be curious to see where the Navy believes that it can take a billion dollars away from shipbuilding, weapons procurement, ship maintenance and repair, and building a fleet in order to construct an alternate port which, on all accounts, doesn’t seem to be needed,” he said.

To the Jacksonville area, all the work related to housing the carrier means thousands of new jobs in addition to the 3,000 sailors who would be stationed on the new carrier. It total, housing the nuclear carrier could mean a boost of about $1 billion to the local economy.

While Virginians argue that it does not make fiscal sense to spend money to ready another naval base for a nuclear carrier, they have long argued that the decision to move an aircraft carrier was inherently 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, did not make it a secret that he wanted to see the carrier in Florida.

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 that total would be reduced to three if one goes to the West Coast, as expected, and another goes to Florida.