San Diego Union-Tribune

November 1, 2001

Carrier Reagan to call S.D. home


By OTTO KREISHER 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan will be based in San Diego, the Navy announced yesterday in a move that still will leave the region one carrier short of the three some officials had wanted.

The carrier John C. Stennis will be transferred from San Diego to Bremerton, Wash., shortly after the Reagan arrives early in 2004. A move was afoot to send the Reagan to Bremerton, but the swap essentially suggests an economic and environmental wash for San Diego.

However, by making a major change in the maintenance schedule for the Stennis, the Navy has minimized the disruption to that carrier's crew and family members. And Navy leaders will keep their promise to Pacific Northwest officials to retain a carrier at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard complex.

The revised schedule appears to have satisfied the congressional delegations that were competing for the Reagan.

Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, and Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, who had led the fight to keep the Reagan, called the decision "a win-win situation" and "great news for San Diego."

George Behan, an aide to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who had lobbied hard to get the Reagan in his district, agreed. "Everyone's happy," he said.

Kelly Cunningham, research director for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he was "mildly disappointed" that the Navy will swap carriers rather than permanently stationing a third in San Diego Bay.

"It would have been a nice economic impact to have a third carrier based here," he said.

He said each of the massive ships represents some 3,200 jobs as well as annual payroll and other carrier-related expenditures approaching $200 million.

"I don't think we can complain too much in comparison to other areas that have lost quite a bit" of military assets, he said.

Laura Hunter of San Diego's Environmental Health Coalition, which opposes nuclear ships so close to the city's urban core, said she was relieved that two rather than three nuclear carriers will be based here.

"The original plan was to have the Stennis, the Reagan and the Nimitz here," Hunter said. "This is an improvement over that."

She said she remains concerned that not enough safeguards are in place to protect the public from a potential nuclear accident.

The Navy's announcement ended a seven-month struggle between the influential lawmakers, with the Navy leadership and thousands of sailors and family members caught in the middle.

The Navy originally had designated San Diego as the future home port for the Reagan, which is under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding Co. in Virginia. That led to an agreement with city officials and the commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and dredging to enable the pier at North Island Naval Air Station to handle up to three nuclear carriers.

But in March, Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Vice Adm. John Nathman, commander of Naval Air Forces in the Pacific, recommended that the Reagan be sent instead to Bremerton. It would have replaced the carrier Carl Vinson, which was due to leave in 2004 for a three-year nuclear refueling and overhaul at Newport News.

Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, endorsed the decision and promised during a visit to Seattle that the Navy would not abandon the new carrier facilities and family housing at Puget Sound, which is the Navy's only shipyard able to handle nuclear carriers.

But Hunter and Cunningham immediately protested directly to Clark, the acting Navy secretary and Fargo.

"I said, 'This is not going to happen,' " Cunningham said yesterday.

Cunningham, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that has control over defense funding, and Hunter, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, which authorizes those funds, threatened to use their positions to block any move of the Reagan. They also got half of the California congressional delegation to sign a letter supporting them.

Their position was based not only on the economic benefit but also on having a ship named for the popular former president and California governor based in the state.

"Ronald Reagan, who was instrumental in rebuilding America's national security, always referred to San Diego as his lucky city," Hunter said in a statement. "It is only fitting that we would be home to the carrier that bears his name and honors his legacy to our country."

Cunningham also referred to the "aura of having Ronald Reagan in California."

Dicks, a senior Democrat on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, fought just as hard to keep a carrier in his district.

To resolve the conflict, the Navy decided to delay for two years a major maintenance operation that would have sent the Stennis to Bremerton for 10 months in 2003 and then back to San Diego. The ship now will change its home port permanently to Bremerton in the winter of 2004, avoiding the need to relocate the crew and families twice, a Navy spokesman said.

"The major driving factor in this decision was to provide stability for the sailors and their families," said Cmdr. Jack Papp, spokesman for Nathman in San Diego.

Meanwhile, the Nimitz will arrive in San Diego on Nov. 13, completing a globe-circling cruise after a nuclear refueling and overhaul at Newport News.

With the conventionally powered carrier Constellation, that will give San Diego three carriers until the Constellation is decommissioned late in 2003.

The Reagan is expected to be commissioned in April 2003 and to arrive in San Diego about a year later.

Staff writer Terry Rodgers contributed to this report.