WASHINGTON — There’s a slim chance the USS Kitty Hawk might see its tour of duty in Japan extended should Japanese sensitivities block a nuclear-powered ship from replacing the aging, conventionally powered carrier there, the Navy’s top civilian leader told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Navy hopes to base a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, after the Kitty Hawk is decommissioned in 2008, Navy secretary Gordon England told the Senate Armed Services Committee during confirmation hearings to take over as the next secretary of the Air Force.

The Navy is also moving forward with plans to decommission the USS Kennedy next year. The two big decks are the last conventionally powered carriers left in the fleet.

England said the Kennedy will be placed in mothball status and, if necessary, could be reactivated to go to Yokosuka if ongoing negotiations with the Japanese government to host a nuclear carrier there fall through.

As it stands, “there’s no plans to do anything but retire the Kitty Hawk [in 2008],” said England.

But pressed by Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, England revealed a second option — keep the Kitty Hawk instead.

“If Japan said ‘no’ on a nuclear carrier in ’08, how are we going to have a carrier in Japan?” asked Nelson, whose state hosts the Kennedy at Mayport Naval Base.

England responded that either of the two non-nuclear carriers remain options for Japan “if we reach that point of discussions.”

Still, England made clear, extending the Kitty Hawk is the not the preferred choice.

“My understanding is we could extend the Kitty Hawk if that were necessary to do so,” said England. “It is not the plan of the Department of the Navy, but it could be done.”

Although the Kitty Hawk is the oldest carrier in the Navy’s 12- carrier fleet, England said, “it is also extraordinarily well-maintained.”

England said the carrier would not immediately need to go into dry dock to extend the ship’s service life, but Navy officials were unable to say how long the big deck could last without an extended overhaul.

A Navy spokesman also declined to say how long it would take — and how much it would cost — to bring the Kennedy back into the active fleet if it were needed.

Nelson scoffed at that.

“Clearly,” said Nelson, “you can’t bring another ship out of mothballs immediately.”

England promised to provide answers.

The whole issue may become moot, however.

Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., backed by at least four senators from both parties, proposed legislation Monday night blocking the retirement of the Kennedy.

“This amendment ensures that all necessary repair and maintenance be accomplished on the USS John F. Kennedy to keep that ship in active status,” Warner said proposing the legislation. The amendment also requires the Navy to keep 12 carriers.

Any decision to cut carriers, said Warner, should come after this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review is concluded.

The Congressionally mandated debate on the roles, missions and structure of the armed forces “may show, with analytical rigor, that the number of aircraft carriers can be reduced,” but, he added quickly, “it may not.”

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