Florida renews push to move an aircraft carrier to Mayport
By HUGH LESSIG | The Daily Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 27, 2018
Florida’s two senators have revived the decade-old debate about basing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, a move with major economic implications for Hampton Roads.
Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson have asked President Donald Trump to include funds in the fiscal year 2019 budget for nuclear propulsion maintenance facilities and additional parking to support an aircraft carrier at the base.
Naval Station Norfolk is the only East Coast home-port for aircraft carriers. Critics of that alignment say it makes no strategic sense to put so many critical ships in one location in case of a terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster. On the West Coast, carriers are based at San Diego and Bremerton, Wash.
“Strategic dispersal of our capital ships is a long held Navy requirement and only prudent considering the cost and strategic value to our national defense,” the letter states.
Although the discussion has been running in fits and starts since 2008, this is believed to be the first direct appeal to Trump. The president is a political ally of Republican Gov. Rick Scott — who is expected to challenge the Democrat Nelson for his Senate seat — and personally favors the Sunshine State, making regular visits to his Mar-a-Lago golf club in Palm Beach.
In March 2017, the Florida delegation requested funds for the project, but that letter went to the secretaries of Defense and the Navy, The Florida Times-Union reported. That request went nowhere.
In Virginia, Republicans and Democrats alike have opposed any attempt to base an aircraft carrier in Florida. They have downplayed the need to disperse the carrier fleet on strategic grounds. Carriers are constantly on deployment, undergoing maintenance at a public shipyard or being refueled at Newport News Shipbuilding. They also say Mayport would require extensive work to accommodate a nuclear-powered carrier, and that money could be better spent elsewhere.
In a joint statement issued late Friday, Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner said: “For decades, Norfolk has been the premiere homeport, a clear reflection of the world-class facilities found in the region. At a time when our nation’s fiscal challenges continue to impact decisions in federal spending, this proposal would prematurely move a single carrier at a cost of $1 billion taxpayer dollars, without a proper comprehensive analysis of our national security needs.”
Norfolk is home to the carriers Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, George H.W. Bush and the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford. Another carrier, the George Washington, is undergoing midlilfe overhaul at the Newport News yard.
Besides military concerns, losing an aircraft carrier and its thousands of sailors would be a gut punch to the region’s economy, akin to a major factory shutdown. According to a 2011 report from Old Dominion University, the loss of a carrier strike group — the carrier plus support ships — would cost the region $800 million to $900 million in annual economic activity.
The Navy first announced in 2008 that it wanted to base an aircraft carrier in Mayport. The base had been home to the conventionally powered carrier USS John F. Kennedy, which was decommissioned in 2007. That decision was supported by the 2010 Defense Department quadrennial review.
As late as mid-2011, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said moving an aircraft carrier to Florida from Hampton Roads by 2019 remained a priority and was in the best interest of the nation.
However, budget cuts soon took hold and the issue was put on the back burner.
The Rubio-Nelson letter notes that Mayport “is an ideal location because it offers a strategic value to our national defense.”
The Navy has not ignored the base as a strategic asset. In 2014, it completed the transfer of an amphibious ready group to the naval station. It consisted of three ships: the flagship USS Iwo Jima, the USS Fort McHenry and the USS New York. The base is also home to guided-missile destroyers and the smaller littoral combat ships.
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