Thursday, December 18, 2008

Florida-Bound?

The Congressional delegations of Florida and Virginia have been engaged in a big-money tug-of-war in recent weeks. At stake is an economic impact of $500 million a year, based on a prospective home port for the new aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

When the Navy recently announced plans to station the a carrier at the Mayport Navy Base in Jacksonville, Florida, the Virginia delegation let out a collective howl. Since the John F. Kennedy was retired almost two years ago, all of the carriers in the Atlantic Fleet have been stationed at Naval Station Norfolk. It's the kind of monopoly that any Congressman or Senator would fight to preserve.

Do the math. Multiply the four existing carriers times the 3,000 sailors associated with each vessel and their annual salaries. That will give you some idea of what a carrier means to a navy base--and the surrounding community.

But naturally, the Virginia delegation didn't couch their arguments in lost tax revenue, or the effect on the Hampton Roads economy. The Virginians, led by Senators John Warner and Jim Webb (both former Secretaries of the Navy), spoke in terms of saving defense dollars and operational efficiency.

And to some degree, they have a point. Home-porting a nuclear carrier in Jacksonville will require at least $400 million in additional spending, on everything from new facilities to dredging the St. John's River. Those improvements wouldn't be required in Norfolk, which could easily accommodate the Bush--and its crew--when they join the fleet.

In fact, the Virginia base has been "short" a carrier since earlier this year, when the USS George Washington moved to Japan, replacing the retiring Kitty Hawk. Lawmakers from the Old Dominion have urged the Navy to keep the Bush in Hampton Roads when it is commissioned in 2009.

Officially, the Navy hasn't signed off on plans to move a carrier to Jacksonville, or decided which vessel will make the move. But Florida Senator Bill Nelson says the transfer is a "done deal" and expects the service to formally okay the decision early next year. And, the carrier deemed most likely to make the move is the Bush.

Mr. Nelson and his colleagues have argued that basing a carrier in Jacksonville is a "strategic necessity," warning that a single strike on Norfolk--or a similar, disastrous event--could wipe out all the carriers in the Atlantic Fleet. And, to a certain extent, the Navy seems to agree:

Having the ship here "reduces risk to fleet resources in the event of a natural disaster, man made calamity, or attack by foreign nations or terrorists," the Navy said in announcing the decision, which will be officially released Friday.

Quite honestly, we think the "Second Pearl Harbor" scenario is a bit overblown. An adversary with long-range missiles would, most likely, be capable of targeting Jacksonville and Norfolk simultaneously. Even terror groups can mount multiple strikes at the same time, although we hope that existing security measures would prevent a ship carrying a nuke from getting close enough to wipe out a naval base. Besides, the odds of catching all of our carriers in port--at the same time--is virtually nil.

A better strategic argument can be made for Mayport's proximity to a region of increasing tension and importance: Latin America. Russia is attempting to reassert its influence in the area; Moscow sent a small naval squadron, led by a Kirov-class cruiser, to Venezuela for recent, joint exercises with Hugo Chavez's military.

After the drills concluded, a Russian destroyer transited the Panama Canal for the first time in more than 50 years. Kremlin officials have even floated the idea of a semi-permanent military presence in Cuba or Venezuela, as a symbol of resurgent Russian power.

Obviously, Moscow cannot challenge U.S. military superiority in the Western Hemisphere. But it's equally clear that we can no longer take the region for granted. The Navy recently reactivated the 4th Fleet, for operations in Central and South America. While much of the fleet's activity will focus on humanitarian, joint security and counter-drug operations, having a carrier closer to the region sends an important signal, and provides a vital tool for showing the flag--and potential power-projection.

The real question (at this stage) is whether the Navy's decision will stick and if it does, what price Virginia politicians will pay. They actively lobbied the Pentagon to keep all east coast carriers in their state. So far, those arguments are falling on deaf ears.

2 comments:

Quiet said...

The dredging you speak of is only inside the carrier basin itself, not the river since the entrance to Mayport is next to the river mouth.

I am old enough to remember back to the days when there were 3 carriers stationed at Mayport.

The Saratoga, Roosevelt and Shangrila.

Having all the east coast carriers in one port that can be blocked in by sinking of a ship in the channel is not the wisest idea.

Dymphna said...

You sent me back on a nostalgia tour of Mayport. I am glad it's rising out of the sea once again.

The pictures I managed to find show that same scruffy palmetto landscape and the hot sand, with the wind blowing (in those pics)in a NNE direction...I'm guessing.

I remember when a school friend's father was an admiral at Mayport but that was the extent of my naval expertise -- i.e., having Navy brats for friends and then later, having Navalfamilies as a source of income when I became old enough to baby sit.

Jackonsville and environs has sure prospered via the Navy. Without its presence, I don't think it could have grown in the other directions it did, attracting commercial enterprises.

Commenter Quiet is right, though: that channel is certainly a choke point.

I think you can still see across to Mayport from the Jetties...