MAYPORT, Fla. - The Navy says it will review whether to put the brakes on moving a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier from Virginia to Florida because of budgetary concerns.
In a letter to Virginia lawmakers, Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert says that dispersing the fleet still makes strategic sense. Norfolk is the only home port for all five East Coast-based carriers.
Defense department officials contend that's a national security concern because of the possibility of a natural disaster or manmade calamity. Aircraft carriers on the West Coast are home-ported at three bases.
Mayport, Fla. previously served as home to the conventionally powered John F. Kennedy, but it was decommissioned in 2007.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of retrofitting the Florida port to accommodate a nuclear carrier and moving it there to be $258.7 million to $356 million.
"From a strategic standpoint, the rationale supporting the decision to disperse our East Coast carrier fleet remains sound," Greenert wrote in his Oct. 21 letter, which was released by Virginia members of Congress on Tuesday.
But Greenert says that in light of defense budgetary cuts, every program should be reevaluated, including funding to homeport a carrier in Florida.
Prior to the GAO report, the Navy had estimated it would cost more than $537 million to upgrade the Florida base near Jacksonville.
Greenert wrote the letter in response to the one from Virginia representatives - who don't want to lose thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue - urging him to reconsider the move. Greenert took over the Navy's top job in September, several months after Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a letter of his own that the Navy planned on sticking with its timeline of moving a carrier in 2019.
In addition to their fears of losing jobs, Virginia representatives contend that retrofitting the Florida port to accommodate nuclear-powered aircraft carriers is unnecessary because one East Coast port is sufficient. They also say it is too expensive at a time when the Navy has other needs.
Among other things, they believe the Navy should instead spend money on new ships and maintenance.
"Given the enormity of our nation's fiscal challenges, the Navy must continue to ensure every cent is spent wisely and appropriately," U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., said in a written statement. "In the face of so many unfunded, critical requirements for shipbuilding, aircraft procurement, and maintenance of ships and shore installations, the president and the Department of the Navy should abandon the Mayport home porting scheme and invest in areas where real risk exists today."
Both Virginia and Florida will be key battleground states in the 2012 presidential election.
For their part, Florida members of Congress want the carrier's planned move expedited by three years to 2016. Republican U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, whose district includes the Florida base, said in a written statement that every project should be subjected to the Navy's annual review.
"The Navy and Department of Defense review budget scenarios multiple times, and while the names and reasons for the reviews have changed, the facts have not," he said.
"Opponents of homeporting a carrier at Mayport stand opposite to the facts and viewpoints of our top military leaders," Crenshaw wrote. "The decision to homeport a carrier at Mayport has been made, military construction projects are underway, and the strategic rationale for Mayport grows stronger each day. Our national security warrants two nuclear-capable homeports on the East Coast - one in Norfolk, one in Mayport. I plan to be on hand the day that a nuclear aircraft carrier sails in to homeport at Mayport."
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