Looming Navy shuffle to make big waves in region

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With the aid of tugs the aircraft carrier Enterprise eases from Pier 12 at the Norfolk Naval Station March 11, 2012 for the ship's last deployment. <span class='credit'>(Bill Tiernan | The Virginian-Pilot)</span>

With the aid of tugs the aircraft carrier Enterprise eases from Pier 12 at the Norfolk Naval Station March 11, 2012 for the ship's last deployment. (Bill Tiernan | The Virginian-Pilot)

SHIPPING OUT

The Navy’s plans call for 17 of the 71 ships homeported here to be gone by 2017, along with more than 8,300 sailors assigned to them. More than 80,000 sailors still would remain. 

SHIPPING IN

Three ships and about 3,400 sailors are slated to move to the area. The vessels include the carrier Abraham Lincoln, the hospital ship Comfort and a guided missile cruiser. 

REASONS FOR CHANGES

The downsizing is driven an aging fleet, a new defense strategy for the Pacific, a commitment to bolster Europe’s missile defense system, and the dispersal of some of the Atlantic fleet to ensure the survival of Florida’s ship repair industry. 

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Local ship repair companies expect to lose $450 million in maintenance work and will shed hundreds of jobs. According to economist James V. Koch, the loss of sailors will put a dent in an economy that relies on the military for nearly half its income.

By Bill Bartel
The Virginian-Pilot
© July 29, 2012

One of every five Navy ships in Hampton Roads is slated to be relocated or decommissioned in the next five years, changes that will leave the region with 5,400 fewer sailors, a Virginian-Pilot analysis has found.

The Navy’s plans call for 17 of the 71 ships homeported here to be gone by 2017, along with more than 8,300 sailors assigned to them. The vessels include an aircraft carrier, a half-dozen destroyers, four frigates, four amphibious vessels, a cruiser and a submarine. Additionally, about 440 sailors assigned to two fighter squadrons will transfer from Oceana Naval Air Station to California.

Countering some of the losses, three ships and about 3,400 sailors are slated to move to Hampton Roads.

Several ship and squadron transfers have been announced or noted in public documents, but the figures compiled by The Pilot, which the Navy acknowledged are accurate, show the cumulative impact of the departures: The military’s footprint in Hampton Roads will noticeably shrink, and the local economy will feel the pinch.

For instance, ship repair companies expect to lose about $450 million in maintenance work and will shed hundreds of jobs.

The loss of paychecks and housing allowances from departing sailors will make a dent in a regional economy that relies on the military for almost half its income, said James V. Koch, an economist and former president of Old Dominion University.

“We’ll feel it,” Koch said. “We’re going to have very low rates of economic growth. That’s certainly going to put a clamp on the housing market. There won’t be as many people out there buying homes. We’re talking about a period of economic stagnancy.”

The changes are unrelated to the current Washington debate over hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic defense cuts that some in Congress are attempting to block.

The downsizing is driven by a variety of factors. Those include:

• an aging fleet;

•  a new defense strategy that deploys more Navy resources in the Pacific;

•  a commitment to bolster Europe’s missile defense system;

•  the dispersal of some of the Atlantic fleet to ensure the survival of Florida’s ship repair industry.

The Pentagon’s pivot to the Pacific, announced earlier this year by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, is to protect valued shipping lanes between the United States and emerging Asian nations. It’s also to project American power in the Far East as China builds its military and seeks to exert more influence.

What had been a fairly even division of Navy forces between Atlantic and Pacific fleets will change by 2020 to a 60-40 split favoring the West Coast.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said during a recent Pentagon briefing that the shift to the Pacific is the Navy’s “No. 1 focus.”

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the Pacific Fleet, told The Associated Press last month that West Coast bases will get the most advanced vessels and aircraft, too.

“It’s not just numbers – it’s also what those platforms, what those units, bring to the table,” Haney said.

Hampton Roads’ fleet will likely grow older as most new ships entering the service head west, said Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance.

The region won’t be entirely shut out, but it will get proportionally less than the West Coast, Quigley said.

“There are going to be new destroyers assigned here. There will be new submarines assigned here.”

Peter Daly, a retired rear admiral and executive director of the U.S. Naval Institute, predicted that the continued crisis in the Middle East might slow the Pacific shift.

“It takes six weeks steaming when you really go expeditiously from San Diego up to the Persian Gulf,” Daly said recently while attending the annual Joint Warfighting Conference in Virginia Beach.

“You can do it from two to 2½ weeks from here. I think the reality of that will slow down the pace of the 60-40. You have this stated goal, but the realities of the world will drive it.”

The most immediate loss to the West Coast will be the departure of the 40-person staff of Carrier Air Wing 17 from Oceana this year, followed by two yet-to-be-identified squadrons that will transfer in 2014 to Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. Five carrier air wings and 36 squadrons are assigned to Oceana.

At the same time, changes to NATO’s European ballistic missile defense system – sparked by the threat of Iran’s weapons development program – spurred the Navy to announce it will send three destroyers from Norfolk to Rota Naval Station on Spain’s southwest coast. The Ross, Porter and Donald Cook, all with ballistic missile defense capabilities, will move in 2014 and 2015.

The Navy plans to send six Hampton Roads ships to Florida – even as its goal of shifting a Norfolk-based aircraft carrier to Jacksonville is on hold, blocked by Virginia’s congressional delegation.

Navy officials announced last month that the New York, an amphibious transport dock ship, will go to Jacksonville’s Mayport Naval Station next year, followed by the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and the Fort McHenry, a dock landing ship, in 2014.

Navy leaders have told U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, whose Florida district includes the base, that three Norfolk-based guided missile destroyers will move to Mayport – one next year and two in 2014.

Pentagon officials say the relocations give a needed boost to Florida’s ship maintenance industry, which has lost considerable work in recent years with the shrinking of Mayport’s fleet. The military considers a robust ship repair industry important to national security.

Mayport currently has 16 ships, nine of which are scheduled to be decommissioned over the next four years. The facility had been a conventional carrier base for a half century until the John F. Kennedy was decommissioned in 2007. It is not equipped to handle nuclear-powered carriers.

Navy leaders aren’t giving up on upgrading the base so a nuclear-powered carrier can be stationed there. They insist that dispersal of the East Coast carriers, which are homeported solely in Norfolk, is necessary to protect them from natural disasters and terrorist attacks, and to give the service another nuclear-capable Atlantic homeport in case of emergencies.

In addition to the relocations, eight locally based ships are slated to be decommissioned over the next five years. Included are the carrier Enterprise, four frigates, a guided missile cruiser, a submarine and an amphibious ship.

An effort is under way to block the decommissioning of the Norfolk-based cruiser Anzio. U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, successfully included funding in a defense bill that allocates $462 million for upgrading the Anzio and two other cruisers to keep them in service. The measure passed the House but needs Senate approval.

The decommissioning of the 51-year-old Enterprise later this year after it returns from its final deployment will be offset by the August arrival of the carrier Abraham Lincoln from Everett, Wash.

The Lincoln will be at Norfolk Naval Station before it moves to Newport News Shipbuilding in February for a three-year refueling overhaul.

The ship’s crew of about 3,000 and their families also are moving to Hampton Roads.

Also coming is the hospital ship Comfort from Baltimore to Norfolk. A Mayport-based guided missile cruiser is expected to relocate to Norfolk in 2014.

Officials say the Hampton Roads region, long home to the Navy’s largest base, will remain vital even if fewer ships are based here. More than 80,000 sailors still would be stationed here.

“The Navy’s partnership with the Hampton Roads region is stronger and more important now than ever and will continue to play a critical role in delivering ready forces,” said Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., U.S. Fleet Forces commander. “Our sailors and their families have called Hampton Roads home for over 200 years, and I’m certain they will continue to do so well into the future.”

If the current plans remain in place, the departures won’t be quick. After Ford announced in 2006 it would close its Norfolk truck assembly plant, about 2,400 jobs disappeared within a year. The Navy attrition won’t be that abrupt.

Quigley, of the military facilities alliance, said the regional economy will be better able to absorb the Navy trims.

Koch predicted, however, that the cutbacks will be felt throughout the economy, from storefronts to auto sales to real estate.

“That’s in many ways unfortunate because right now we seem to be turning the corner on housing,” he said.

A downsized Hampton Roads fleet may have the most direct impact on the private contractors that maintain the ships, said Tom Epley, president and CEO of Marine Hydraulics International and chairman of the Virginia Ship Repair Association.

“We feel it’s going to result in permanent job losses of about 650 full-time positions across the waterfront,” Epley said. “You’re talking about blue- and white-collar jobs that pay from $10 an hour for the lowest to $45 an hour for the highest.

“It’s a full range of personnel. Laborers to project managers to purchasers … everybody.”

Hampton Roads’ loss will be someplace else’s gain.

For example, the three-ship amphibious group moving to Mayport will provide $75 million in maintenance contracts for Jacksonville-area ship repair businesses, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said.

Separate from the Navy’s short- and long-range plans, Hampton Roads and other military-rich communities could see deeper cuts beginning in January.

Congress and the White House are sparring over how best to avoid $500 billion in automatic defense budget cuts over 10 years, beginning next year with about $110 billion in reductions. A recent George Mason University study estimated the cuts could result in 200,000 job losses in Virginia.

The looming defense cuts, known as sequestration, are triggered by legislation Congress passed last year when it approved raising the federal debt ceiling. Some lawmakers have said it’s unlikely the issue will be resolved until after the Nov. 6 national elections.

Quigley said Hampton Roads won’t stop being important to the Navy, but changes are coming.

“In a perfect world, I would say a lot of the decisions that are being called for wouldn’t be made in the first place, but that’s not the reality of the world we live in. We will feel those budget pressures in Hampton Roads.”

Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said the reduction of the fleet, while not pleasant, shouldn’t be surprising for a Navy community that for generations has had to endure the ups and downs of deployments and defense funding.

“Our view has been that whatever is in the best interest of national defense and the Navy is in our best interest as well,” said Fraim, whose son-in-law is a Navy pilot heading overseas. “We certainly see them more than just an economic development machine in our community.

“It’s part of who we are.”

Bill Bartel,  757-446-2398, bill.bartel@pilotonline.com

DATABASE | Navy ships in Hampton Roads

The Navy plans to move three Norfolk-based destroyers included in the database to Mayport, Fla., in 2013 and 2014, but has not identified the specific ships. The listing also includes three ships that have not yet arrived and are noted as such. The database was compiled with information from the Navy and Newport News Shipbuilding.

LAST UPDATED JULY 27, 2012.

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TOD...SUBTRACT ABOUT $20 BILLION

I hope all the transit oriented development folks pushing light rail will factor this into the equation....but not of course. Yes this has been coming a long time. And the loss of sailors in this article is way underestimated I saw figures of sailors and dependants leaving at 30,000 +.
I am always amazed when estimates to positive economic effects are talked about you see these way high numbers ,when negitive economic impacts are discussed the numbers are so small they almost seem not a problem. But I do not like the ships leaving but I do know the country need these ship on the west coast now....anything else is selfish and not looking out for the USA. We will make it through.

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