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The carrier wars continue

We were enjoying a nice lull there for awhile, but then, this week, the Carrier Wars came roaring back -- the never-ending battle between Florida and Virginia over when or whether the U.S. Navy can move an aircraft carrier from Norfolk to Naval Station Mayport, Fla., It came up this week on the House Armed Services Committee when Florida and Virginia members fell back into dueling over why their respective states are the ideal venue for a carrier, and why the other imperils America's national security. Not only that, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead added still more fuel to the fire on Thursday when he told an audience in Norfolk that the Navy still considers it a priority to move a carrier to Mayport, as Christopher P. Cavas, dean of America's naval-gazers, wrote here.

The Navy's goal is to upgrade Mayport's port so that it can handle the unique repairs and maintenance for a nuclear warship, then position one of its carriers in Florida around 2019. The argument is that it makes sense to practice "strategic dispersal" along the East Coast, and have multiple ports where a nuclear warship can retire for repairs in case one of them is out of action. Also, disaster-scenario aficionados love to picture a scenario in which all the East Coast carriers are in port in Norfolk, and evil bad guys (or incompetent mariners) scuttle their giant vessel in the channel over the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. All of a sudden American seapower in the Atlantic is bottled up, and the villains are free to undertake their fiendish schemes.

Virginia advocates say the possibility of this actually happening -- of all the carriers being there, of enemies coming up with this specific plan, and of it working -- is incredibly remote. One thing we know does happen, Virginia backers say, is that Florida gets hit every year by hurricanes. Why would the Navy move a capital warship to a port where it's much likelier to be damaged, or at least disturbed, by storms? And although Norfolk boosters don't make this argument, you could just as easily say that Mayport is as vulnerable as Hampton Roads to a channel-blocking-ship-scuttling attack. It's still mostly a theoretical threat -- the more you think about it, the more absurd it sounds.

No, the Carrier Wars, like many other defense controversies, are really about money. Norfolk not only loves the Navy because it's always been there, its ships are a huge part of the local economy. Mayport wants a cut of that action. And from the Navy's perspective, if it has two East Coast ports where contractors can theoretically compete, it can theoretically save money by threatening to send more ships down to Mayport. Of course, the Navy is having a devil of a time with its shipyards everywhere these days -- it just decertified one of its longest-serving contractors -- so there's no guarantee a second East Coast repair center could yield any actual benefit for the service.

No matter: As long as Virginia stands to lose money and jobs and Florida stands to gain them, the Carrier Wars will continue to rage.

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