WASHINGTON — Three Florida members of Congress announced legislation Wednesday to mandate that the Navy keep 12 aircraft carriers in its fleet, a move prompted by Pentagon proposals to decommission the Florida-based USS Kennedy to save money.

Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., criticized Pentagon officials for considering the proposal, which they say would jeopardize national security, as well as financially devastate northern Florida.

“We should be wise enough to recognize that at a time of war, our nation needs 12 carriers,” Martinez said. “We all hope there could be such a time when we don’t need this kind of defense, but it’s not now.”

Navy officials refused to comment on the legislation and budget proposal. Navy Secretary Gordon England spoke to all three lawmakers last week to inform them of the Kennedy’s proposed shutdown, which could save about $1.2 billion.

Nelson said the USS Kitty Hawk, based in Yokosuka, Japan, is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2008 and its replacement, the USS George H.W. Bush, is two years behind schedule, and won’t be in service until 2009.

Crenshaw said that it’s one of the smallest savings in the $30 billion cut in the Pentagon’s 2006 budget proposal, but could have the most impact on military readiness. He also criticized the decision to make the cuts in behind-the- scenes budget meetings, rather than leaving the issue for the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review process.

“The leadership in the Pentagon is making a short-sighted decision prompted by budget woes,” he said. “If you take this carrier out of service, that’s an irreversible decision … that puts us at tremendous strategic risk.”

But Christopher Preble, foreign policy studies director for the Cato Institute and Gulf War Navy veteran, said the usefulness of U.S. carriers against terrorists is limited, since the only obvious concentration of terrorists to launch large-scale attacks against was in Afghanistan.

“For them to make the argument that carriers are essential for the war on terror is absurd,” he said. “There are things that the carrier can do that no other platform can, but you can say that about most of the U.S. military.”

The Kennedy, based at Mayport Naval Station, returned to Florida in December after a six-month mission in the Middle East. The carrier has a crew of more than 3,100, and Crenshaw estimates its presence brings about $250 million annually into the Jacksonville area.

The 36-year-old carrier underwent $350 million in repairs last spring and is scheduled to undergo another $378 million overhaul later this year.

He also pointed to 2003 and 2002 Navy posture statements, which note that “real-world experience and analysis indicate that a carrier force of 15 ships is necessary.”

Preble said in the past Congress and the White House have overturned similar defense department cuts, but described the legislation as an unusual pre-emptive move.

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