Pacific central to Navy's defense plan
By Dennis Camire
Advertiser Washington Bureau
By Dennis Camire
WASHINGTON — The Navy intends to keep at least six aircraft carriers in the Pacific over the next two decades under a defense plan released yesterday, but it was unclear whether a new carrier would be added to the region.
The plan, a sweeping report done every four years, outlines how the nation's fighting force should be structured.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said the plan did not address basing a carrier in Hawai'i but the idea "remains under consideration."
"I will continue to advocate that we have an aircraft carrier group based in Hawai'i," said Inouye, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. "The United States faces many challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, and I remain convinced that having a carrier based in Hawai'i will be crucial for our national security."
Overall, the plan highlights Hawai'i's growing role in the nation's defense, said Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i.
"The focus is on the growing war on terrorism worldwide and clearly that implicated the Asia-Pacific region and Hawai'i's role there," he said.
But Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, said the plan did not include specifics on the timing or details of the Navy's posture in Hawai'i. Akaka, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would find out more in the next few weeks when the committee begins its hearings on the Pentagon's plan and its budget for next year.
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, said the plan was so vague about how it was going to reach its goals that it amounted to "glittering generalities."
"You don't know any more today than you knew before," said Abercrombie, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The 128-page plan, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, states that the fleet will have "greater presence" in the Pacific because of the shift in trade and transport to that region and China's growing power. "Accordingly, the Navy plans to adjust its force posture and basing to provide at least six operationally available and sustainable carriers and 60 percent of its submarines in the Pacific," the plan says.
About 35 attack and ballistic missile submarines are based in the Pacific and an equal number in the Atlantic, the Navy said. Sixteen attack submarines are based at Pearl Harbor.
The plan also says the Navy will build a larger fleet that includes 11 carrier strike groups, but does not specify where they will be based.
"For me, the biggest question right now is what does that mean," Case said. "It doesn't reflect an expansion in the number of carrier task forces and it doesn't specify where those carrier task forces ought to be positioned."
The Navy has 12 carriers. Five have home ports on the West Coast, one is based in Japan and six are stationed on the East Coast.
Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Washington, said that the Navy plans to retire one carrier, reducing the fleet to 11. Since at any given time, one of the remaining carriers is going to be out of service for overhaul or refueling, that means the majority of the nation's flattops will be deployed to the Pacific basin, he said.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet carrier USS Carl Vinson, usually homeported in Bremerton, Wash., is slated for a three-year overhaul in Virginia, meaning the ship will be out of commission, and leaving Navy officials wondering if another carrier will be moved to the Pacific — even temporarily — to meet the Quadrennial Defense Review call for six "operationally available" carriers.
"Hawai'i benefits from the plan but I think there is a reluctance to talk precisely about how Hawai'i is going to benefit for fear of offending Virginia and other losing delegations," Thompson said. "If you want to be close to the action, you have to put most of your Pacific assets in Hawai'i."
Defense analyst Christopher Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, also said he didn't know what the Navy meant about keeping 60 percent of its submarine fleet in the Pacific.
"I don't know if that means actually moving more subs into the Pacific or if it means retiring ones from the Atlantic," he said. "In theory, it could mean more submarines, but I don't think it tells us that specifically."
InsideDefense.com reported that the Navy wants to shift a carrier from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and locations examined included Hawai'i, Guam, the West Coast, Japan and Singapore, but such a move would result in a bureaucratic and political tussle with East Coast lawmakers.
The cost of relocation also is a big factor. Estimates placed the tab at $2.2 billion for Hawai'i and $5 billion for Guam.
Even if a decision is made to base a carrier in Hawai'i, it would take five to seven years for infrastructure improvements before the big ship arrives.
Staff writer William Cole contributed to this report.
Reach Dennis Camire at email@example.com.