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KENNEDY TARGET IN BUDGET CUTS

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By MATT GALNOR and MARY KELLI PALKA

The Times-Union

A Pentagon proposal to retire the Mayport-based USS John F. Kennedy as early as 2006 could deliver what state and local officials say is a crippling blow to Jacksonville's economy and the city's military presence.

This comes just eight months after the Navy's top official said the aircraft carrier would be in Jacksonville until 2018, and a year after the government pumped $350 million into upgrading the ship.

"This is a slash for cash," said U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. "It's a short-term solution to find some money, and this is the wrong way to go."

The proposal is part of a Department of Defense plan to slice $60 billion in six years and would leave the Navy with 11 aircraft carriers, cutting the fleet for the first time since the mid-1990s.

State and federal officials were briefed about the proposal last week and remain hopeful it is not a done deal.

"This is a work in a progress," Gov. Jeb Bush said in a conference call Thursday.

Local, state and federal officials say they'll fight to keep the Kennedy here. They're firing off letters to President Bush and huddling to lobby Washington lawmakers to save the carrier, which first deployed in 1968.

Lobbying efforts should begin by saying, "this is a lousy, stinking, miserable idea," City Councilman Lad Daniels said.

Some in Jacksonville's military community put more faith in the professionals than the elected officials.

"You can always expect the politicians to go into a dither anytime the services mention a reduction in the [Jacksonville] area," said Samuel Phillips, a retired Navy lieutenant commander. "I have much more confidence in Department of Defense and the Navy in determining our defense strength and posture than local politicians."

Little is known about the potential fate of the 15,400 people who work at Mayport Naval Station, should the Kennedy be taken out of service.

About 3,000 people are based on the JFK and, on its own, the carrier would be among the 20 largest employers in Jacksonville.

The crew members are people who live here, play here and spend their money here, said Dan McCarthy, Jacksonville's director of military affairs.

"It's a floating city, and a floating city has a whole lot of needs," McCarthy said.

Mayport is built to handle at least two carriers and, aside from the Kennedy, is home to more than 20 other ships. The Naval Forces Southern Command, which combats drugs and terrorism in Central and South America, is also based at Mayport.

Navy officials would not comment on the future of the base, saying nothing had been determined.

"It would be premature and inappropriate to discuss the president's budget before it is sent to Congress," said Lt. Amy Gilliland, Navy spokeswoman.

Although the Kennedy is one of the oldest carriers, officials say all signs pointed to it sticking around a while. During an April visit to Jacksonville, Navy Secretary Gordon England told local leaders the ship would be in Mayport until 2018. This month, the Kennedy returned from a six-month deployment supporting troops on the ground in Iraq.

The military spent $350 million overhauling the ship last year and the JFK was set for another $400 million worth of work during a year-long dry-dock period in Norfolk, Va., beginning in June. With the second stint of work, the JFK would have another 20 years of useful life and could go another seven years even without the work, Crenshaw said.

"It makes me wonder what kind of decisions are being made in the Pentagon," he said.

Mayor John Peyton said he was shocked when he heard rumblings this week that the JFK could be decommissioned next year.

"I'm very disappointed," Peyton said. "This would be 12 years earlier than we anticipated."

Various studies show the Kennedy has about a $200 million to $300 million annual impact on Northeast Florida, officials said.

"It's devastating to Jacksonville," City Council President Elaine Brown said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Florida's congressional delegation is pursuing a two-track strategy to protect the ship. If the funding cut can't be reversed, he said Congress would consider setting a mandatory minimum of 12 aircraft carriers in the Navy.

Nelson noted there is some precedent for such a move, such as when Congress established a mandatory minimum of three U.S. Marine divisions during the Truman Administration. Congress has also previously considered mandating a 300-ship Navy and a 520,000-troop Army.

Both measures would come through the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee -- of which Nelson is a member. But he suggested the first strategy to simply protect the funding may already be a lost cause.

"It's going to be difficult to get the Department of Defense to reconsider what is apparently coming down the pike. I've seen this before," he said.

While local officials had been concerned about the Kennedy in the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure process, it was concern about keeping the carrier from moving to Norfolk. The thought of the government retiring the ship, especially during a war, wasn't even considered, Daniels said.

"It makes absolutely no sense," Daniels said.

"I believe this proposal is driven by the green eye shade number crunchers at Pentagon and not those focused on military operations."

U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, speaking Thursday about a proposed defense budget cut that would include retiring the USS John F. Kennedy next year.

Taxpayers have also contributed millions more to the area around Mayport. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority, joined by the state Department of Transportation, has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years to improve roads going to the base.

In 2002, JTA opened a controversial $17.5 million flyover ramp from Atlantic Boulevard to Mayport Road. Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach city councils voted against the ramp, but JTA built it partly because of the benefit for motorists driving to the base.

In July, JTA opened a new $36.5 million bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway as part of the $146 million Wonderwood Connector. Wonderwood Connector starts at Mayport Road near the base gates. The Navy applauded the bridge when it opened as a time-saver for trips to and from the base.

Times-Union writers David Bauerlein, Beth Kormanik and J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this report.

matt.galnorjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4550

mary.palkajacksonville.com, (904) 359-4104

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The Pentagon's budget-cutting proposal

Under a proposal to cut $60 billion in defense spending over six years, the Navy would retire the Mayport-based USS John F. Kennedy in 2006. If the aircraft carrier leaves, officials speculate the other Mayport-based ships in the JFK's strike group may also leave.

WHAT'S NEXT

President Bush will present his budget to Congress on Feb. 7. That budget is expected to include retiring the Kennedy as part of the Pentagon's planned cuts. Congress still has to approve the budget sometime next year. If the Kennedy proposal does not change, the carrier will be decommissioned in 2006.

WHAT COULD LEAVE

Aircraft Carrier

USS John F. Kennedy

crew: about 3,000

Guided Missile Cruiser

USS Vicksburg

crew: about 360

Destroyers

DDG 80 Roosevelt

crew: about 340

DD 963 Spruance

crew: about 380

Air Wing (Based at Jacksonville Naval Air Station)

HS-15 Red Lions (Four SH-60F Seahawks; Two HH-60H Seahawks)

WHAT COULD STAY

3 Guided Missile Cruisers

2 Guided Missile Destroyers

1 Spruance Class Destroyer

11 Guided Missile Frigates

MAYPORT NUMBERS

Personnel: 15,400 employees (military and civilian)

Base size: Navy covers about 3,400 acres

Tenant commands: More than 70, including Naval Forces Southern Command

Ships home-ported: 21

Source: U.S. Navy

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I read about this. It is going to be intresting to follow because they threatened to close Jacksonville's navy base before and then it was strengthened. What they may end up doing is bringing in a new carrier from Norfolk to Jacksonville and retire its older ships as a result of budget cuts. Many people don't realize how vital the Navy is to Jacksonville. It is imperative that we keep the base.

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Seems like a lot federal dollars wasted if they do away with the Kennedy.This scenario seems to pop up here every other year here.We'll have to see how much clout our reps in Washington have to discourage this from happening.If it does happen,maybe they can give the Kennedys berth for the larger cruise ships if that ever comes to pass.Not gonna happen,it's just a thought :blink:

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My father is a retired Navy vet who was stationed and retired in Jacksonville, and we've had some discussions on this topic.

From a taxpayer standpoint, the Kennedy is a money pit, and probably should be retired. It's old, it's had problems in the past, it's failed inspections, and has undergone a mulit-million dollar makeover. Every carrier in the Navy is nuclear powered exception one: take a wild guess which one that is.

Still, this could be a silver lining for Mayport. To get a nuclear-powered carrier from Norfolk, they'll have to deepen the channel. This is something that has been on Mayport's wish list for years.

It's fine to retire the Kennedy, if we can replace it.

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From a taxpayer standpoint, the Kennedy is a money pit, and probably should be retired.  It's old, it's had problems in the past,  it's failed inspections, and has undergone a mulit-million dollar makeover.    Every carrier in the Navy is nuclear powered exception one:  take a wild guess which one that is. 

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The USS Kitty Hawk is another non-nuclear-powered carrier, stationed in Japan.

The very sudden emergence of this plan makes me wonder what's really going on in Washington. A year ago they pumped $350 million in it and now they want to can it? Clearly they are not trying to maximize investment in their fleet, instead they are reacting to a political agenda probably related to the insane budget busting of the past four years.

I think you are dreaming if you think they will expand Mayport in the wake of this. They are slashing the budget here - and what carrier will replace the Kennedy? The next carrier due for completion is the G. H. W. Bush (scoff) due out in 2009 and it is likely already intended to replace something else. Probably the Kitty Hawk.

Certainly it makes sense for local politicians to oppose this, but I'm not too optimistic they will be successful if the White House really wants to make it happen. I'm guessing people like Jeb Bush and Ander Crenshaw have more loyalty to the party than their constituents!

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Well, I don't know. Jacksonville's base is pretty important for the East Coast. I bet we may be given a "used" carrier from Norfolk. After all, we got the Kennedy from Norfolk (I think) after the Saratoga left.

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