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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 14, 2003

Navy aircraft carrier at Pearl Harbor more likely

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

A 1999 Environmental Impact Statement gives insight into factors likely to be considered as the Navy decides whether to base an aircraft carrier at Pearl Harbor and use the old Barbers Point — now called Kalaeloa — for an air wing.

A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, such as the USS Ronald Reagan commissioned Saturday, could call Hawai'i home if the Navy bases an aircraft carrier here.

Associated Press

In the study, Hawai'i ultimately was rejected for a carrier because of the "inaccessibility to training ranges and the lack of facilities to support a carrier air wing."

But with the Cold War's end and new worries focused on Asia, trimming a carrier's sailing time by a week to places such as the Korean Peninsula may have finally turned the tide for Hawai'i, which is competing with Guam for the carrier. A decision may be made by September.

The study found that bringing a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier would cost $678 million, require the dredging of 3 million cubic yards of sediment for a deeper turning basin, and — without an air wing in Hawai'i — necessitate the nuclear-powered ship steaming to California when it needed to pick up its aircraft.

With Barbers Point Naval Air Station closing at the time, the Navy wasn't going to battle for a new base for a carrier's 70 to 80 aircraft because there was no strategic imperative for a carrier here.

"Considering ... the investment required for air base initial setup and equipment, transfer of required personnel, and operational personnel support, the Navy plans to continue basing Pacific Fleet carrier air wings in the continental United States," the EIS said.

The Navy at the time selected berths directly across from the southwest corner of Ford Island as the preferred dock for one of the 1,092-foot, 88,000 metric ton ships.

A $29 million pier at Ford Island, now rented as berthing space by the battleship Missouri museum, was considered "inferior" in part because it would have had to be lengthened and possibly widened beyond its 1,000 foot-by-80 foot size.

The Navy report also said 3 million cubic yards of sediment would need to be dredged to deepen water depth of 43 to 49 feet to a desired depth of 50 feet in the channel and turning basin.

"Homeporting an aircraft carrier would require dredging and major upgrades to the waterfront regardless of the specific berthing location," the Navy said last week.

Dredging, new facilities and modifications to a dry dock at the base were estimated in the 1999 study to cost $146.6 million. Housing was estimated to cost $342 million and operational costs totaled $190 million.

Infrastructure being installed

Having just the carrier — and no air wing — was anticipated to bring 3,217 crew members, add 1,018 family members to the civilian labor force and 606 children to O'ahu schools, with a net impact of $32.3 million in revenues over costs for the city and state.

The Navy said there have been numerous improvements made to Pearl Harbor during the past several years, and a dry dock support facility, dry dock electrical distribution system improvements and a new waterfront mechanic shop are in various stages of completion.

Ben Toyama, vice president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union that represents Navy shipyard workers, said the infrastructure for an aircraft carrier already is being put in place.

The Navy wants to centralize operations by consolidating services in the Pearl Harbor area, and last year picked a development plan for Ford Island that calls for a maximum of 420 family housing units, bachelor-enlisted quarters for up to 1,000 personnel and 190,000 square feet of office space.

Private developer Fluor Hawai'i LLC also is getting a 65-year lease on 34 acres of Ford Island land, and has plans for housing and retail on the parcel.

"Since 1998, they (the Navy) have been developing Ford Island with that in mind — hoping we would have a carrier," Toyama said. "Now it seems that we have the opportunity."

Pearl Harbor also has the space: With the post-Cold War drawdown of the military, the number of surface ships with its home port in Hawai'i has dropped from 23 in 1987 to 11 today. Submarines based here have remained relatively constant, with 19 in 1985, and 17 now.

The Navy shipyard workforce also dropped from a high of 6,500 people to a low of 3,400, Toyama said.

"The carrier would create a lot of work in and around this Pearl Harbor basin," he said.

Guam has said it is also seeking a relocated carrier — and the thousands of jobs and millions in military money it would bring. But former Guam Congressman Robert Underwood believes Hawai'i has too many advantages over Guam.

"Hawai'i's got the big harbor, it's got the facilities, it's got a congressional delegation with Sen. (Dan) Inouye," Underwood said. "In order for Guam to prevail, it would have to make so much military sense it would overwhelm those things — and I'm looking — but in vain up till now."

Michael Pavkovic, director of the diplomacy and military studies program at Hawai'i Pacific University, said "it's not just putting people there and it's not just putting a ship there — it's maintaining that ship, maintaining supplies, and I just don't see the value added of building all that stuff (in Guam) when you have Pearl Harbor."

Political dogfight expected

The nation's 12 carriers are divided evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Moving a carrier from either coast to Hawai'i is likely to mean a political dogfight because of the economic impact associated with homeporting one of the floating cities.

A carrier crew and air wing represent some 5,500 personnel. Escort ships also could be moved.

"No decision has been made with regard to homeporting an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor," the Navy said last week.

Basing for an air wing and training are other obstacles identified in 1999, but officials say those, too, can be overcome.

The Pacific Missile Range Facility airfield on Kaua'i was rejected as too small, no space existed at Kane'ohe Bay, and Hickam Air Force Base only could accommodate a portion of the carrier air wing of jets, propeller aircraft and helicopters, which normally fly off as a carrier nears home port.

Officials say the runways at Kalaeloa could be used without the base being reactivated, as a hybrid use in tandem with Hickam and with the goal of minimizing noise for communities around Kalaeloa.

Typically, an air wing embarks four times with a carrier for training during a two-year cycle of training and deployment, the 1999 study said.

With air-to-air and air-to-surface training limited at areas such as Pohakuloa on the Big Island and the Pacific Missile Range Facility, a carrier would need to sail to southern California for training range access, meaning eight six-day trips back and forth.

But even those old cycles are being rethought and speeded up as the Navy attempts to have more forces ready to react faster.

HPU's Pavkovic said the United States is thinking more about the possible need to respond to crises in multiple places at once — such as the Taiwan Straits and Korean Peninsula.

"You know, four to five days (closer with a carrier in Hawai'i) can make a big difference both diplomatically and militarily in terms of the kind of pressure that we can bring to bear," Pavkovic said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.