Editorial: Dire consequences of losing a carrier

 By The Virginian-Pilot Editorial Board

MEMBERS OF the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission are concerned that Florida may successfully swipe one of the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers now stationed here. Their worry is more than justified since it may be a question of when, not if, the Pentagon proceeds with dispersement of its Atlantic carrier fleet.

The U.S. Navy now operates 11 carrier groups: six stationed at Naval Station Norfolk; two at Naval Base San Diego; two at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Wash.; and one at U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan. The division allows the service to balance its power between the Atlantic and Pacific.

The idea of moving one of the carriers from Norfolk to Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville dates to 2008 and was included in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which stated that it would help the Navy “mitigate the risk of a terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster” in Hampton Roads.

The Navy last had a carrier — the conventionally powered USS John F. Kennedy — stationed at Mayport in 2007, and it set a tentative goal of locating one of the nuclear-powered vessels in Florida by 2019.

Such a move makes some practical sense. One need only consider the catastrophic attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941 to recognize the potential folly of locating so many of the nation’s most important ships in one port.

Spreading the carriers out, placing them in more than one East Coast location, would seem to have strategic benefit, though there exists here a support infrastructure for these vessels that is unrivaled on the East Coast.

Unquestionably, though, the relocation of a carrier would be an economic calamity for Hampton Roads.

In its 2011 State of the Region report, the Regional Studies Institute of Old Dominion University estimated that the loss of a carrier group could cost Hampton Roads $800 million annually, or about 1 percent of the gross regional product.

It would mean the loss of thousands of sailors, construction projects and other ancillary activity to support the group. It would ripple through Hampton Roads, affecting all manner of commerce and altering the fabric of life across the region.

Coincidentally, it was sequestration — those onerous federal spending caps imposed in 2013 — that might have spared Hampton Roads from such a move.

Naval Station Mayport needs upgrades to its facilities that could cost as much as $1 billion before it could accommodate a carrier group, according to 2009 projections. The belt tightening necessitated by sequestration made that quite impossible.

However, with the White House eager to boost military spending and a Republican Congress all too happy to follow along, that money may soon be available. Last month, Florida’s U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking the funding be included in the budget.

This follows similar agitation by the Sunshine State’s Senate delegation last year, and the year before, and so on. Yet Mayport’s conversation to handle a nuclear-power carrier has yet to receive the necessary funding.

Each of those requests has been met by persuasive counterarguments made by Virginia’s congressional delegation — in particular Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman — that the carrier groups remain in Hampton Roads.

Still, it is unlikely their run of success on this issue can continue indefinitely. And it is why elected officials across the region and the state must continue their fight.

Case in point: The planning district commission’s vote Feb. 15 to oppose oil and gas drilling off the Virginia coast, concluding that an exemption — such as the one Florida received from the White House — would keep the commonwealth on equal footing should the Navy examine its options.

It may be a minor point, but if relocation of a carrier group really is about when, rather than if, even those minor points might make a big difference.

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