Webb, Warner want backlog at shipyards addressed before aircraft carrier moves

Virginia’s two Democratic senators want the Navy to maintain its four shipyards before investing as much as $1 billion in moving a nuclear aircraft carrier out of their state to Florida.

Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner renewed the fight over the Navy’s East Coast aircraft carrier fleet after a yearlong Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found the Navy has a $3 billion backlog in restoration and modernization projects at its four shipyards.

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Those shipyards — in Norfolk, Va.; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Portsmouth, Va.; and Puget Sound, Wash. — are considered key to the Navy’s ability to keep its fleet battle-ready and support ongoing operations.

Webb and Warner are using the GAO study to fuel their argument that the Navy should not spend limited defense funds to prepare Mayport, Fla., to house a nuclear aircraft carrier, but should address the multibillion-dollar backlog at the shipyards instead.

“This study documents why the Navy should invest more resources in our four naval shipyards before building redundant nuclear-support infrastructure to homeport a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Mayport, Fla.,” Webb said in a statement on Friday.  “The yards play a key national security role through their performance of critical ship repair, maintenance and modernization work.”

The Virginia delegation has been fighting the Navy’s decision to split up its East Coast aircraft carrier fleet and move one carrier to Florida. Norfolk, Va., wants to remain the sole nuclear aircraft carrier base on the East Coast, but is facing competition from the Mayport Naval Station in Florida.

The Florida delegation, meanwhile, wants to preserve the Navy’s decision and ensure that Congress funds the necessary projects at Mayport, including special maintenance facilities, road improvements and dredging.

The stakes are high: 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.

The Navy in 2009 decided it would make strategic and security sense to disperse its fleet of East Coast aircraft carriers rather than keep them in one location — a move that gave Florida the advantage.

In February, the Pentagon’s sweeping review of military strategy and capabilities, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, also backed the Navy’s decision. The Navy in April indicated that it won’t be able to transfer a nuclear aircraft carrier to Florida until 2019, instead of 2014, as initially planned.

Warner called spending as much as $1 billion a “poor fiscal choice” in times of severe financial challenges.

“The combat readiness of our Navy is directly tied to the health of the shipyards, and this stubborn backlog is something that must be addressed,” Warner said in a statement.

Sens. Webb and Warner — along with Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — requested that the GAO conduct an investigation into the material condition of the Navy’s four shipyards.

Virginia now hosts five carriers, a figure that could drop to three if one goes to the West Coast, as expected, and another goes to Florida.

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

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 drop 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. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and the Florida delegation have argued that having too many carriers in one port could create a strategic target for a U.S. foe. The Navy also justified its preference to move a carrier to Mayport partly due to its desire to disperse the fleet in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.