A Nuclear Carrier For Mayport and F-35s at JIA?
In the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) the Navy said a nuclear aircraft carrier will be coming to Naval Station Mayport. Once again, unless she is on deployment, those of us lucky enough to travel past the carrier basin on our way to the Atlantic ocean will have the pride of seeing an aircraft carrier tied up at the docks, a testament to our region’s commitment to the nation’s defense.
It has been a difficult road, and one that the political leaders in Virginia fought tooth and nail. The reason for that was simple. Having an aircraft carrier means jobs, and when the sailors and their families are in port, they’re spending money in the local economy. It makes so much sense to not put every east-coast carrier at Norfolk that one just wanted to look at the Defense Department and say “C’mon, Man!” Which only testifies to how much power the Virginia delegation wields. But now, it appears that, in four or five years, Mayport will be the proud home of a carrier, as long as it makes it through the congressional budgetary process.
There is still that, after all. Bringing a nuclear carriers to Mayport will require extensive dredging of the basin and some at the jetties. There are upgrades to the wharf area needed that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, all of which can create jobs for people locally. But the Virginia delegation has pledged to continue to fight nearly $1 billion in funding that would be needed to make the upgrades, and some still contend that it does not make “military sense” to disperse the fleet. One wonders how they can continue to say that with a straight face, but somehow, they manage.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time aboard the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy shortly before her last deployment. All the stories you’ve heard about an aircraft carrier being a small city are true. But more maybe more importantly, every time I went past the ship on the St. Johns River, there was a real feeling of pride. The city is a step closer to regaining that pride, and the only ones who seem to be naysayers are the political leaders in Virginia.
But a story we’re hearing less about, which may not have the economic impact of an aircraft carrier but is still quite significant, is the possibility that the Air Force may put as many as 24 F-35 Lightning II fifth generation fighters with the 125th Air National Guard Fighter Wing based at Jacksonville International Airport. It’s the first time in history that the Air Force has even considered placing its front line fighter with an Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve unit. The aircraft is undergoing flight testing now at NAS Patuxent River, and is expected to be operational in 2013.
Basing an F-35 wing with an Air National Guard unit would allow National Guard pilots to train on the same equipment as active duty troops. In this era of so many National Guard units being called up for active duty, this makes a lot of sense, though admittedly we all hope that situation has changed by the time the F-35s start landing at JIA. But it would also help cement Jacksonville’s position as a military town. The Navy has long had a strong presence here, and it says a lot that the 125th would be considered for the military’s newest fighter.
Neither of these developments is carved in stone. It seems likely that the nuclear carrier will be coming here, but Washington is a strange creature, and to say that everything that happens there doesn’t necessarily make sense seems to be unnecessary. JIA is one of six sites being considered for F-35s, and there will be several public hearings on environmental impact and other concerns held in the local area beginning in a couple of weeks. That decision won’t be made for about a year. But we should all look forward to feeling that sense of pride when we see “our” aircraft carrier making her way to sea, and “our” F-35s flying training sorties in our airspace.