ARLINGTON, Va. — Navy officials plan to decommission the last two conventionally powered aircraft carriers left in the fleet, but they are leaving the door open to bring one back if needed to assuage Japanese political concerns.

Navy Secretary Gordon England told reporters Monday the 38-year-old USS John F. Kennedy will be decommissioned next year but will remain ready to be recalled to active duty if necessary.

“We’re going to mothball the Kennedy,” England said, but he added, “if you need the Kennedy to go to Japan we can always make the Kennedy available.”

Still, he insisted, “the Kennedy is the best carrier to take out because of her physical condition, her limited life.”

At issue is Japanese reluctance to host nuclear-powered warships. Nearly 60 years after allied warplanes dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the question of anything nuclear remains politically charged in Japan.

That’s why the conventionally powered USS Kitty Hawk is currently homeported in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo.

The Navy’s only forward-based carrier, the Kitty Hawk is tasked with standing by for flare-ups on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait, as well as pulling periodic duty in the Persian Gulf. The presence of a permanently based carrier in Japan has long been one of the cornerstones of U.S. security policy in the region.

And basing the carrier somewhere else does not appear to be an option, at least at this point, England said. “As far as I know, nobody has considered not having a carrier in Japan,” he said. “We plan to have a carrier in Japan. I believe we want a carrier there, I believe the Japanese want a carrier there.”

But with the Kitty Hawk slated for decommissioning in 2008, it remains unclear exactly which carrier the Navy hopes to put there. Navy officials say that plan hasn’t been worked out yet.

The fact remains, however, that with both Kennedy and Kitty Hawk gone, the only options for replacement will have a nuclear reactor.

“The Navy would like to put a nuclear-powered carrier in Japan,” said Bob Work, once an adviser to former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and now senior analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “If you have an all-nuclear carrier force by 2008, you’ve got a much better chance of the Japanese government being able to sell that. But it’s all very controversial, obviously, so having a backup in case that falls through makes sense.”

Already girding for that debate, 300,000 Japanese recently signed a petition urging the Yokosuka mayor and the central government to block the basing of any nuclear-powered warship in Japan.

Meanwhile, it looks like the Navy will have a fight of its own on its hands to cut the Kennedy from its rolls.

Commissioned in 1968, “Big John” — as the Kennedy is known by its crew — is one of the oldest of the Navy’s 12-carrier fleet. Defending the decision to jettison the big deck and downsize to 11 carriers, England told lawmakers last week the Navy would save $300 million a year in overhaul and maintenance costs.

Already, however, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are pushing legislation that would block the move by requiring the Navy to maintain 12 operational carriers.

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