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5 things that could affect the future of Naval Station Norfolk

Servicemembers and guests enjoy a fireworks display over the downtown Norfolk harbor on June 10, 2017, during the 41st annual Norfolk Harborfest. This year's Harborfest also celebrated Naval Station Norfolk's centennial.

ATKINS RICKS/U.S. NAVY

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: June 30, 2017

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) —The workers who broke ground on what would become Naval Station Norfolk a century ago Tuesday never could have imagined the world events and technological advancements that would continually transform the Navy's largest base.

The facility, built after the United States entered World War I, long has served as the epicenter of the Atlantic fleet and is home to a variety of ever-evolving aircraft, surface ships and submarines.

While that's unlikely to ever change, here are five things that could affect what the base looks like and how it interacts with the region over the next century:

1. BRAC

The military has been asking Congress for years to approve a new round of Base Realignment and Closure, known as BRAC, to rid itself of excess infrastructure. Congress has been reluctant to do so because base closures are politically sensitive due to the significant economic impact they can have on their communities.

It's impossible to know what a BRAC commission might recommend, but in the past it sought to reduce overhead costs by creating joint bases such as Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton and Newport News and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach. Creating a joint base puts a single commander in charge of two distinct installations.

It's unclear whether Naval Station Norfolk will remain an independent command forever, or whether it could be merged at some point with its neighbor Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads or any other command. There is a precedent for it: Naval Air Station Norfolk was disestablished in 1999 and merged with Naval Station Norfolk to become Chambers Field at Naval Station Norfolk.

It's unlikely Naval Station Norfolk would ever close, but it is possible that the base could pick up additional people, equipment or commands if one somewhere else did. That could result in a greater concentration of people or assets on base, or it could mean some existing commands could get moved elsewhere to make room.

2. Sea-level rise

Naval Station Norfolk is threatened by the very water that makes it an ideal location. Norfolk has the fastest rate of relative sea-level rise on the East Coast due to sinking land and global warming.

The sea level around the base is projected to rise between 4.5 and 6.9 feet by the end of the century, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"During the second half of the century, in the absence of preventive measures, NS Norfolk can expect more frequent and extensive tidal flooding, loss of currently utilized land, and substantial increases in the extent and severity of storm-driven flooding," the group said in a report.

The Navy is beginning to address sea-level rise by keeping it in mind whenever it has a new building project on base in an effort to prepare for rising waters. The Navy also is partnering with Norfolk and Virginia Beach to study sea-level rise in surrounding communities because flooding off-base affects sailors' ability to get to work.

3. Public transportation

Traffic to and from Naval Station Norfolk has long been a frustration for those who drive onto base or get caught up in traffic on one of the routes to it.

Norfolk and Hampton Roads Transit are studying the possibility of extending light-rail to the base to alleviate traffic and provide one of the region's primary employment centers – with more than 66,000 military and civilian workers – a more reliable alternative. HRT also is studying the possibility of creating a bus rapid transit line to the base instead of extending light rail because it likely would be less expensive.

Bus rapid transit typically works by dedicating a lane of traffic exclusively for buses and using elevated platforms to speed up boarding. While a preferred route for either mode of transportation hasn't been selected, options for base arrival include stops on Hampton Boulevard and on West Bay Avenue at Gate 4. Riders would pass through security before hopping on another form of transit on base.

In addition to helping commuters, Navy officials have told HRT they're also looking for light rail to help sailors and personnel easily and safely leave base for entertainment and dining options downtown and elsewhere.

4. Strategic fleet dispersal

Naval Station Norfolk is the home port for every aircraft carrier based on the East Coast. The Navy has long said that's a problem because of the threat of a natural disaster or military or terrorist threat.

Beginning in 2009, the Navy made plans to have at least one aircraft carrier shift its home port to Mayport, Florida. But the base near Jacksonville would require extensive upgrades to accommodate a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It last served as the home port to the conventionally-powered USS John F. Kennedy.

Virginia's and Florida's congressional delegations have fought for years over moving a carrier because it would be a significant loss for Virginia and a major economic gain for Florida. The only thing that's stopped the Navy from proceeding with its relocation plan is the cost to upgrade the Florida base at a time when the fleet has been shrinking and overtaxed by more than 15 years of war. It's possible those financial circumstances could change.

It's not just an aircraft carrier that could leave Norfolk, though. The Navy routinely shifts assets around the globe to meet emerging threats. Destroyers that once were stationed in Norfolk are now permanently based in Spain. The Navy also has been putting its most advanced ships in the Pacific theater to counter an emerging China. As threats change, there's always a possibility that Norfolk could lose – or gain – ships.

5. The Unknown

A classic saying among Navy leaders when commenting on even the best-laid plans is, "The world gets a vote." Naval Station Norfolk was created in response to World War I. Future conflicts and threats similarly could shape the base's use.

Technological advances also could affect nearly every aspect of life on base. Ships like the Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carrier already are being built to operate with fewer sailors. The Navy is committed to using more unmanned aircraft, ships and submarines, too. It's unclear if those unmanned systems would be based in Norfolk, but planners are keeping open that possibility.

Security on base was tightened after the Sept. 11 attacks, and access became more restricted. It's unclear what changes another event on the scale of 9/11 could have to the base and surrounding community that includes a port terminal, interstate highway and heavily trafficked waterway.

©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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