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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

Navy considering Hawai'i for carrier strike force

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Navy and the Lingle administration are discussing the idea of moving an aircraft carrier to Pearl Harbor, a decision that could boost U.S. defense in the central Pacific and create more military and civilian jobs in the Islands.

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said yesterday he expects a decision to be made before September. Inouye, who supports the idea, called discussions between state officials and the Pentagon "very serious."

"I think the government of the United States is coming to the realization that many of the problems of this world are now located in the Pacific area," Inouye said, mentioning the Koreas, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. "And if that is the case, some of our muscle should be put in this area."

Navy officials at the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor would not discuss the talks.

"At this point it would be premature to discuss any plans that might pertain to the transfer of forces in the Pacific," said Jon Yoshishige, a fleet spokesman.

But Maj. Gen. Bob Lee, the state's adjutant general — head of the state's National Guard — said the Navy approached Gov. Linda Lingle's administration about two months to three months ago.

"The Navy said we are contemplating a carrier strike force in the state of Hawai'i and how can we make it happen," Lee said. "If that is the objective of the military, we are in full support."

Lee stressed that any decision would be based on defense strategies. Talks so far have included ways that the state can help the Navy with such a move, he said.

"We'll continue to work in a cooperative way," Lingle said yesterday. "It's not only important for our nation's security, it's important for Hawai'i's security as well. Any source of assets like that help us to maintain strong homeland security."

Although the Navy has submarines and surface ships at Pearl Harbor, the nearest aircraft carriers are on the West Coast. Given the number of trouble spots around the Pacific, it makes sense to access them quickly, Lee said. Putting a carrier in Hawai'i could eliminate five to seven days worth of travel time.

In addition to having adequate berthing space, a Hawai'i-based carrier would have easy access to one of the few dry docks big enough to hold it at the adjacent Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, he said.

A carrier also would need a base to store and maintain about 75 planes and helicopters when it is in port. Lee said the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station — now called Kalaeloa — is a good solution.

Although used by a mix of state and federal agencies, including the Hawai'i National Guard, there is plenty of unused hangar space, Lee said. Also, his guard jet aircraft mechanics and air traffic controllers are in place to work with the Navy, he said.

"I am the big tenant there," Lee said. "I have had my staff look at it to see if we can work together, and my preliminary studies show we can all co-exist and make it a joint effort."

The Navy last considered Pearl Harbor as a possible home port for an aircraft carrier in 1998, when it was looking for a base for two new Nimitz-class carriers and considering moving a third. But in a draft environmental impact statement concluded that Pearl Harbor lacked adequate maintenance and support facilities. The study also determined that there were no airfields here to accommodate the 70 to 80 carrier aircraft.

Lee is not sure how long it will take for a final decision in this latest effort. He said the state and Navy still have much to discuss.

And there are other cities that want a carrier.

"I think we are in a good position," Lee said. "Our competitors have their hackles up. I think this will be driven by what makes sense for the defense of our nation. Being able to get somewhere quick and defuse a situation is worth quite a bit."

All told, a carrier strike force can have anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 people. But not all the support ships, submarines and planes are assigned to the same location.

For example, the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, is homeported in the Seattle area but its aircraft come from Virginia, Central California, San Diego and Seattle. And ships at Pearl Harbor are assigned to carriers out of San Diego.

Still, an aircraft carrier has a huge impact on a community.

"Anytime you bring in thousands of people into the state, and their salaries, and their spending in the state, it does have a big impact," Lingle said.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a supporter of the move because "it is the right thing for our country to do," said the Hawai'i economy will see benefits.

Shipyard workers, businesses around Pearl Harbor and technology firms that work on military contracts all would benefit.

"There is nothing like an aircraft carrier strike force to round out a defense presence in a community," he said. "It brings more military jobs, and it creates more jobs in the community that serves it."

Even though the Navy ultimately makes the final decision, Case said the state's optimism about the project and Inouye's prediction of a swift decision are "well grounded."

"I believe we have everything they need in Hawai'i or can, with some joint effort, have everything they need to put a carrier into Pearl," he said. "And we want it."

Staff writer Gordon Pang contributed to this report. Reach Mike Gordon at 525-8012 or mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.