Is Florida Making Another Run at a Virginia-based Aircraft Carrier?

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford heads to its dock at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. For at least the second time this year, Florida lawmakers have made a formal request to move a carrier to Naval Station Mayport. (Bill Tiernan/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford heads to its dock at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. For at least the second time this year, Florida lawmakers have made a formal request to move a carrier to Naval Station Mayport. (Bill Tiernan/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Sen. Marco Rubio's attempt to amend the 2019 defense authorization bill has caught the eye of Virginia's two senators, who fear it might be a step toward moving an aircraft carrier from Norfolk to Florida.

The amendment from the Florida Republican would add $5 million to the Senate version of 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, a blueprint that serves to guide budget writers.

The full Senate is set to consider the NDAA next week.

The additional $5 million would go toward implementing "future homeport decisions based on the strategic dispersal objectives in the 2018 Strategic Laydown."

The Navy's annual strategic laydown and dispersal plan establishes a blueprint to best position naval power to meet warfighting requirements.

That would include carrier homeport assignments, but the Navy has yet to announce that.

Florida lawmakers have consistently lobbied the Navy to base a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville. Putting all East Coast carriers at Naval Station Norfolk, they say, makes the fleet more vulnerable to an attack, accident or natural disaster.

Virginia lawmakers have fought just as hard to keep those carriers in place.

They say it's rare for all Norfolk-based carriers to be pierside at once, given constant deployments and time spent in shipyards for maintenance or long-term overhauls. Also, Norfolk is bracketed by the Navy's master jet base at Oceana and Newport News Shipbuilding, the only shipyard that designs, builds and refuels aircraft carriers.

Mayport was once home to conventionally powered aircraft carriers. It has never hosted a nuclear-powered carrier. Doing so would require additional upgrades into the millions of dollars.

In a joint statement emailed to the Daily Press, Warner and Kaine said they are working to block Rubio's amendment from being included in the NDAA.

"Norfolk is home to our shipbuilders, ship repair and extensive infrastructure necessary for the Navy to maintain its fleet," the statement reads. "Absent a strategic assessment from the Navy on cost and necessity, it would be extremely premature to put $5,000,000 on the table without having any clue how that money would be spent and toward something that might never happen."

It's possible the Navy could recommend moving naval assets to Mayport, and the Florida delegation has been lobbying for just that. Rubio's amendment would be one way to get out ahead of any such decision.

Rubio's office did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.

The stiff-arming by Warner and Kaine of any attempt to move carriers out of Norfolk indicates the sensitivity of the issue in Hampton Roads. The effect of moving a carrier would have implications beyond military security.

According to a 2011 report from Old Dominion University, losing an aircraft carrier and its thousands of sailors, plus support ships, would cost the region $800 million to $900 million in economic activity. A carrier moving south has been likened to a major factory shutdown.

This debate has been running in fits and starts since at least 2008. The proposed Rubio amendment marks at least the second time this year that Florida lawmakers have made a formal request for increased naval presence at Mayport.

In January, Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson wrote to President Donald Trump to fund nuclear propulsion maintenance facilities and additional parking to support an aircraft carrier at the base.

"Strategic dispersal of our capital ships is a long held Navy requirement and only prudent considering the cost and strategic value to our national defense," the January letter states.

In February, the Virginia delegation wrote to Trump to say they were "disturbed" by the Florida letter. Moving a carrier from Norfolk to Florida would cost $589.7 million up front, the letter states. The recurring annual cost would be $25.2 million.

The Virginia letter said limited defense funds shouldn't be spent on "a non-existent requirement and duplicative capability that will cost the Navy nearly $1 billion over 15 years."

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This article is written by Hugh Lessig from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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