NORFOLK -- Ever since the Abraham Lincoln pulled into its new homeport at Norfolk Naval Station in August, the crew has been working to prepare the aircraft carrier for its midlife nuclear refueling.
But less than a week before the ship was set to steam to the shipyard in Newport News, the Navy announced it was postponing the elaborate overhaul because of a lack of funding -- the latest in a line of drastic defense cuts tied to the federal budget crisis.
The Lincoln will remain moored at the Norfolk base until Congress resolves the shortfall created by its inability to agree on a budget, a Navy spokesman said.
"The fiscal uncertainty created by not having an appropriations bill, and the measures we are forced to take as a result, place significant stress on an already strained force and undermine the stability of a fragile industrial base," Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said in a statement.
The overhaul was timed to take place midway through the 50-year lifespan of the Lincoln, which was commissioned in 1989.
In addition to the Lincoln not being ready to deploy for a longer period, the postponement also affects other carriers scheduled to enter the shipyard.
Particularly affected will be the dismantling of the recently inactivated carrier Enterprise, set to begin in June, and the pending refueling of the carrier George Washington, scheduled for 2016.
The change will affect numerous jobs at Newport News Shipbuilding. The Lincoln's "refueling and complex overhaul" is expected to take at least three years and cost $3.3 billion. Servello said the Navy's funding is short by $1.5 billion.
Because of that deficit, the Navy has not yet signed a contract with shipyard owner Huntington Ingalls to do the work.
The Navy has already paid the shipyard $702 million for design and engineering work and supplies.
Delaying the work comes with a cost, too: Servello said keeping the ship docked in Norfolk will cost the Navy an extra $10 million a month.
In a letter to employees Friday afternoon, Newport News Shipbuilding President Matt Mulherin stressed that the overhaul had been delayed, not canceled. He said shipyard employees would continue to work on the ship while it's docked in Norfolk in preparation for the eventual overhaul.
"We are very disappointed and frustrated at this turn of events," Mulherin wrote.
Workers at the shipyard -- the only yard in the nation capable of building and refueling nuclear-powered carriers -- had been preparing a dry dock this week in anticipation of the ship's arrival on Thursday, said shipyard spokeswoman Christie Miller. The delay will raise the final price tag for the overhaul, Miller said.
The move will also affect the local economy.
Weeks ago, the Navy released a list of tentative cuts because of the budget squeeze, including plans to cancel third- and fourth-quarter ship maintenance. Retired Rear Adm. Joe Carnevale, a defense adviser with the Shipbuilders Council of America, said those cancellations will cost tens of thousands of shipyard jobs nationwide and will have ripple effects for companies down the supply chain.
"In delaying the Lincoln's midlife overhaul, that's just going to add to the job losses," Carnevale said.
Many Lincoln sailors and their families are still getting adjusted to life in Hampton Roads after arriving in August. The carrier left its previous homeport of Everett, Wash., in December 2011, then traveled around the world on an eight-month deployment before arriving in Norfolk.
That deployment was originally slated to end in May, but tensions in the Persian Gulf twice delayed the ship's homecoming.
The crew has spent the past several months stripping the ship of unnecessary equipment and getting it ready to enter the shipyard. On Friday afternoon, the ship's captain alerted the crew to the new delay.
Lt. Cmdr. Steve Curry, a Lincoln spokesman, said the crew will continue preparing the ship for the overhaul.
"There's a lot of work still going on the ship," Curry said. "We will proceed with our daily schedule."
Virginia legislators issued statements condemning the across-the-board cuts slated to kick in on March 1 and warning that they would severely hamper the Navy's ability to perform.
Deferring the work is "yet another example of how these reckless and irresponsible defense cuts in Washington will have a long-term impact on the Navy's ability to perform its missions," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, said.
"The men and women who serve our nation in uniform deserve better than this," said Rep. Bobby Scott, a Newport News Democrat. "The men and women at Newport News Shipbuilding who build, repair, and maintain the most advanced naval fleet in the world, deserve better than this."
The announcement comes two days after defense officials canceled deployment of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman. The 5,000 sailors in the Truman strike group were to have deployed Friday, but the budget squeeze will keep them in port.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Friday's decision shows the urgent need for a solution in Washington.
"It will cost taxpayers more to delay this work, and it adds uncertainty to thousands of military families and our shipyard workers," Warner said.
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