Leaders Press For Nuclear Carriers

Money And Politics May Be All That Stand Between Jacksonville And A Coveted Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier At Mayport Naval Station, Members Of Florida’s Congressional Delegation Said Friday.

U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw told Jacksonville business and municipal leaders they are confident Congress will realize the strategic importance of putting a carrier at Mayport and shelling out as much as $400 million to do so.

“That won’t be easy, but it’s been done before and it will be done again,” Crenshaw, a Jacksonville Republican, said to a packed meeting room at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce downtown.

The comments followed the Friday morning release of the Navy’s long-awaited study on Mayport Naval Station.

The report, called a draft environmental impact statement, lays out 13 alternatives for basing an assortment of ships at the 3,400-acre facility at the mouth of the St. Johns River.

The best-case scenario for the Jacksonville area would bring a nuclear-powered carrier, two big-deck amphibious ships and five other warships to Mayport. The worst-case scenario would bring no new ships.

The report examines the economic and environmental impact of each alternative but does not identify any of them as the preferred option. The final draft, including the Navy’s preferred option, is expected by the end of the year, according to the Web site containing the report.

The good news, Crenshaw said, is that nothing in the environmental or economic data eliminates the city’s chances of landing a nuclear-powered flattop.

“There’s no show-stoppers.”

Concerns beyond Florida

But the Navy’s budgetary challenges and powerful political forces in Virginia – from which a carrier might come – could stop Mayport from getting a carrier, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and national security expert at The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy research group.

Convincing top admirals to spend hundreds of millions to put a carrier at Mayport is tough when they’re already struggling to pay billions for war operations, future planes, ships and other systems, O’Hanlon said.

“It’s not going to be done just as a favor to Florida or to a fancy idea of a group of strategists,” he said. “It’s going to have to been seen as something that makes broader sense.”

Nelson sees danger

Nelson, a Democrat, said they already have the argument that makes broader sense: That dispersing the nation’s carrier fleet is vital to national security.

Norfolk Naval Station remains the sole base for East Coast aircraft carriers since the Mayport-based John F. Kennedy was decommissioned in March 2007.

Five nuclear-powered carriers are based at Norfolk Naval Station and one, the USS Carl Vinson, is in Newport News, Va., undergoing a lengthy shipyard overhaul.

By comparison, the five carriers in the Pacific Ocean are split among bases in California, Washington and Japan.

Nelson said it’s dangerous to have so many carriers at one East Coast base, especially where ships must traverse about 10 miles of narrow ship channel to reach the sea. It would take only the sinking of a single ship in that channel to bottle up the fleet for months, he said.

Likewise, a single nuclear strike or dirty bomb attack could destroy or render unusable all the ships at Norfolk, O’Hanlon said.

“Any group of ships that is at one location runs some risk of being stymied collectively by a single action,” he said. “You really don’t want that in the modern era.”

Norfolk losing, too

But that’s really an outdated argument that fails to account operational realities, said Frank Roberts, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military Federal Facilities Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to retaining and growing military assets in Virginia.

Most of the time, only one or two of Norfolk’s carriers are in port at a time, Roberts said. Deployments and other underway periods essentially amount to dispersing the fleet, he said.

Besides, Norfolk is already smarting from the upcoming loss of two carriers: The USS George Washington to Japan this year and the USS Carl Vinson to San Diego in 2010.

Plus, having multiple carriers share maintenance and logistics facilities makes more economic sense than building those facilities for one ship at Mayport, Roberts said.

“Is that the best stewardship of the taxpayer’s money when that capability already exists in other places?” he asked. “I could argue the opposite.”

High cost of improvements

The high cost comes from the dredging and facilities construction required to base a nuclear-powered carrier at Mayport.

The ship’s nuclear propulsion plant requires specific logistics and maintenance facilities, wharf and road improvements and other upgrades at Mayport, the report said. And to sail a fully loaded carrier into the base would require dredging the channel from the current 42 feet to 54 feet, the report said.

Crenshaw conceded it will take “a sizeable amount of money” to make those changes at Mayport. But the money was found to build similar facilities in Japan and it will be possible to find $300 million to $400 million for Mayport in a $500 billion defense budget.

Economic impacts

Martinez, a Republican, said the delegation is pushing hard for a carrier alternative, which represents the most strategic benefit for the nation and the biggest economic impact for the region.

Most of the report’s alternatives, in fact, predict economic hits to the First Coast.

Currently, the Mayport base is home to 22 ships, including 13 guided missile frigates. But the frigates are scheduled for decommissioning in the coming years, offsetting the gains in most of the report’s alternatives.

But some of the alternatives – especially one calling for a carrier, amphibious assault ships, destroyers and a frigate – would boost the base population despite the eventual loss of the frigates.

Peyton watching calendar

Much more of a worry is the timing of some of the proposed alternatives, which see significant changes, if approved, not happening until 2012 to 2014, Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton said.

“I wish it wouldn’t take so long,” Peyton said.

So do the city’s ship repair companies, according to a statement issued Friday by the Jacksonville Ship Repair Association.

The group lauded Florida lawmakers for their efforts but urged “the shortest possible time line” for bringing a carrier to Mayport to minimize the impact on the local economy.

Focused on the carrier

Martinez said he’s not worried about timing, other than making sure the Navy is moving as quickly as reasonably possible to let its preferred alternative for Mayport be known.

The Navy may announce in two months if it plans to establish a 4th Fleet headquarters at Mayport, which would be responsible for naval operations in the Caribbean and south Atlantic, Martinez said. That, he added, could be a clue that a carrier is in the base’s future.

Crenshaw said he expects the Navy to make its preferred alternative known in as little as three months.

In the meantime, Martinez said he will continue to press Defense Department and Navy officials to choose the carrier option.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s easy,” the senator said, “but it’s doable.”

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