Navy not ready to bring nuclear carrier to Mayport as newer ships change course

Naval Station Mayport on April 21, 2009.


By JOE DARASKEVICH | The Florida Times-Union (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 2, 2017

The prospect of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier coming to Mayport Naval Station on a permanent basis in the near future is a long shot based on the direction of the Navy and the current climate of the military.

Instead a much smaller variety of ships meant to operate close to shore with versatile mission packages are starting to arrive at Mayport to fill out the basin.

The Navy insists the new squadron of littoral combat ships and the trio of vessels that make up Mayport’s amphibious ready group are a satisfactory replacement for the carriers and frigates that used to float at the pier.

But that isn’t stopping Florida legislators from regularly requesting funds from the Department of Defense to restart a renovation project at Mayport that stalled years ago just before the most critical step.

The entire Florida delegation sent a letter in March asking the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Navy to include funds in the 2018 budget that would allow the project to ramp up again. But the Navy didn’t include the funding, and the project will remain on hold.

“Current fiscal constraints require the Navy to defer investing in another East Coast nuclear-powered aircraft carrier home port,” said Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day, a spokesman for the Navy Office of Information. “U.S. Navy long-range planners constantly evaluate whether ships, aircraft and equipment are being used effectively and efficiently, balancing capability, cost and resiliency.”

He could not provide a dollar amount for how much funding had already gone into the project or how much would be needed to see it through to completion. But Day said the Navy is monitoring the fleet to provide the most robust force possible.

But promises were made by the Navy to bring another carrier to Mayport when its last carrier, the conventionally-powered USS John F. Kennedy, was decommissioned 10 years ago. At that point another carrier was expected to arrive by 2019.

The letter sent by the delegation in March cited the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that called for the renovations at Mayport as well as the Navy’s repeated emphasis for a strategic dispersal of ships in the Atlantic Fleet.

“Considerable nuclear facilities are needed to home-port a nuclear carrier,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said of the situation. “We are requesting that the administration speed up the timeline for this expenditure to home-port a nuclear carrier at Mayport.”

The work to dredge the basin and modify the shore power to accommodate one of the new carriers was moving along smoothly until 2012 when President Barack Obama released a budget didn’t include the funds necessary to continue the project to make the base capable of providing maintenance needs for a nuclear-powered carrier.

“The Navy and Congress will have to recommit to directing funds to continue and complete these vital projects, after which we could eventually home-port a carrier back down in Mayport,” U.S. Rep. John Rutherford said. “As Congress and the Trump administration continue to work toward rebuilding our naval fleet, the Florida delegation has been unified in urging the Navy to resume this work at Mayport, as these projects are in our national security interest — more so than other projects being considered.”

Retired Adm. Robert Natter closed his Navy career as the commander of the Atlantic Fleet and then moved to Ponte Vedra Beach where he’s worked with area politicians and lobbied to bring a carrier to Mayport.

He said the Navy has been consistent that the dispersal of ships in the Atlantic Fleet is something they see as a top priority, but they still keep all the carriers in Virginia.

“They’ve never fallen off of that strategic importance,” Natter said recently.

Retired Capt. Matt Tuohy works as the director of aviation at Jacksonville University and served as the commanding officer on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and the executive officer on the Kennedy.

Tuohy agreed with Natter that the Navy has repeatedly pressed the importance of having more than one base on the East Coast for carriers. He said he understands the funding dilemma but doesn’t accept it as an excuse to keep all the carriers in one place.

“Things are running smooth but if the military necessity as defined by the Navy is force dispersal, we are not achieving that necessity,” Tuohy said.

He said it basically comes down to if the government chooses to not spend the money to bring a carrier to Mayport, they are also accepting a higher level of risk.

Natter said the Navy offered a compromise by giving Mayport the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group — the USS Iwo Jima, USS New York and USS Fort McHenry. But although the Iwo Jima is a “big deck” vessel with about 700 crew members, it doesn’t come with the same compliment as a nuclear carrier.

“They have put ships down here that did not require more money,” Natter said of the pricey renovations needed for a carrier.

It’s not like the Navy is financially neglecting Mayport. New construction is sprawling across the base, but it’s mostly for the littoral ship squadron.

Mayport is the East Coast home for the littoral ships with the USS Detroit and USS Milwaukee already operating out of the basin. There are nine more in various stages of the construction and pre-commissioning process, with a new ship scheduled to arrive in Northeast Florida every six months.

The ships are much smaller than traditional Navy ships and have steel hulls with aluminum superstructures. They use steerable jet propulsion instead of propellers and can be used for surface warfare, mine counter measures and anti-submarine warfare.

Natter said there is room in the basin for the amphibious group, the littoral squadron and a nuclear carrier, but the financial hurdle of making Mayport a nuclear repair facility is the major problem preventing that scenario.

“The only thing they haven’t done is the nuclear repair facility,” Natter said of the construction.

Tuohy said converting Mayport would bring more to the area than just the crew connected to the carrier.

“If we are going to have a nuclear repair facility here, we are going to have a cadre of highly technical, highly paid workers who do not presently live here,” Tuohy said. “That’s going to have ripple effects from convenience stores to real estate to everything out there at the Beaches.”

The Navy is worried about the cost of moving a carrier’s home port to Mayport, but Tuohy said they essentially do that every time a carrier goes into dry dock for maintenance.

Right now they normally go from the piers at Norfolk Naval Station to the dry dock at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard or the Newport News ship-building facility. Tuohy said the logistics involved with moving a ship from its place on the pier into the dry dock is similar to changing its home port.

Tuohy was the executive officer on the Kennedy in the 1990s when its home port changed from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard — which is no long operational — to Mayport.

He said there was a lot of planning that went into the move like relocating families and transporting vehicles down to Mayport. But he said the Navy is always planning things way out in advance, and it would be fairly routine to do something like that once the basin is capable of maintaining a nuclear carrier.

Tuohy said with the new administration and issues in the fleet like two recent collisions with civilian ships in the Pacific Ocean, it wouldn’t be surprising if anyone at the Department of Defense has given much thought to bringing a carrier to Mayport.

“I’m not sure this is front burner stuff right now,” Tuohy said.

But despite all the moving parts and technical planning that would go into bringing a carrier here, Tuohy said he thinks there will be one in Northeast Florida again one day.

©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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