A decision by the U.S. Navy to make Mayport Naval Station the East Coast home for the basing and maintenance of its new drone program means 400 additional personnel permanently stationed in Northeast Florida.
Mayport beat out Key West Naval Air Station and the NASA Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., on Wednesday for the opportunity to become the East Coast Forward Operating Base for the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System, according to the Navy.
The plan is to establish a launch and recovery site for four drones on the base as well as a maintenance hub for up to four more unmanned aircraft, according to the Navy. Jacksonville Naval Air Station is already the training hub for the drones, and it was also the home of the first operation squadron, VUP-19, according to the Navy.
The unmanned, unarmed, remote-controlled aircraft are meant to provide tactical and strategic mission capabilities as part of the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force already based in Jacksonville, according to the Navy.
"The MQ-4C Triton's advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities bring enhanced battlespace awareness for the fleet to achieve full spectrum superiority," said Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces.
The drones have multiple sensors and can fly about 24 hours at a time with the capability to survey 2.7 million square miles in a single mission. They are 48 feet long with a wingspan of 131 feet, according to the Navy. The drones are used to conduct operations over water, specifically over international waters 12 miles or more offshore.
Construction on the facility will start this year with the first drone expected to arrive in 2020, according to the Navy.
Politicians with ties to the Mayport community offered praise to the Navy on Wednesday after the base was announced as the future home for the drones.
"I am very pleased with the Navy's decision, which will not only enhance our national security by helping the Navy carry out its important maritime surveillance missions, but is also a huge victory for the Jacksonville community, further strengthening our partnership with the Navy," said U.S. Rep. John Rutherford.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson also applauded the decision Wednesday after writing a letter in April to the secretary of the Navy recommending both Florida locations as prime candidates due to their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Nelson also cited the ongoing maritime patrol operations at Mayport as a reason why the base should be chosen. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also sent a letter to the secretary in June to advance the push to bring the drones to Florida.
"Florida's military community plays a vital role in defending our nation, and the Triton system is a key component of the Navy's maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions," Rubio said Wednesday.
The Navy completed an environmental assessment to analyze impacts on the communities surrounding the three potential bases. But the results showed no significant environmental impacts at any of the three locations.
So the major factor in the decision was financial, according to the Navy. The fact that existing facilities were already in place made it the most affordable option of the three.
Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California has already been selected as the West Coast home base for the Triton program. According to the Navy, three locations outside the continental United States will also be selected.