Navy holds off on controversial carrier

The Navy postponed making a final decision over whether to move a nuclear aircraft carrier that both Florida and Virginia are fighting to attract.
Navy Secretary Donald Winter was supposed to make a decision by the end of December that would have cleared the way for shipping the next available nuclear-powered carrier to Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla., or keeping it at the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. Sources say that decision will now come as early as next week.
Delegations for both states have been lobbying both the Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration, trying to make the case that their respective ports would be a better fit for a nuclear carrier that can generate billions of dollars for the local economy.
The likely candidate is the George H.W. Bush, a carrier that the Navy officially announced this week would stay in Norfolk initially. Mayport is not equipped at the moment to house the carrier, and will not likely be ready until 2014.
Having the carrier in Norfolk for several years could give Virginia leverage in its fight to prevent the move of any aircraft carrier from the largest carrier base on the East Coast. Norfolk is now home to four aircraft carriers.
The carriers represent an economic lifeline for the Hampton Roads region, but moving one could revive the Jacksonville ship-repair industry and economy.
The hardest battle in Congress will be fought next year when lawmakers decide on the authorization of military construction projects, according to congressional sources. Virginia lawmakers will try to put the brakes on any funding that would allow Florida to upgrade Mayport to accommodate a nuclear carrier. Florida’s lawmakers will fight tooth-and-nail to get the authorization for military construction at Mayport. If they are successful next year, very little could stop the Navy from moving the carrier to Florida.
The secretary of the Navy will decide which carrier will go to Florida, once Mayport is upgraded.
It is no secret that the Bush family prefers to see the carrier named after the 41st president in Florida.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) made that clear at the ship’s 2006 christening at Newport News, Va. Northrop Grumman built the carrier there. Virginians have feared that the weight of the former first family could be the difference in a bidding war for the newest nuclear-powered carrier.
President George W. Bush will speak at the commissioning on Jan. 10 and his sister Dorothy Bush Koch, the ship’s sponsor, will give the order to man the ship and bring it to life.
Florida will need at least $500 million to build special maintenance facilities, road improvements and dredging at Mayport. The decision to fund the necessary construction will lie with President-elect Obama’s Pentagon and with Congress.
Mayport was also designated the home of the 4th Fleet with responsibility over the Southern Hemisphere. That designation could bolster not only Mayport’s military role, but also its chances of getting a nuclear-powered carrier.
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. The Navy also justified its preference to move a carrier to Mayport partly on its desire to disperse the fleet in the case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Norfolk lost one of its longtime carriers — the U.S.S George Washington — which is changing homeports to Yokosuka, Japan, as the nation’s only carrier permanently stationed overseas. Virginians calculate that the economic activity related to one carrier can reach $1 billion a year.
Currently, all the fighter jets that would go on the carriers based on the East Coast are housed at the Oceana Master Jet base near Norfolk.