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Media General News Service November 19, 2005

Va. carrier's shift a sign of new Asia

The George Washington's planned move to Japan is also a big issue for Norfolk

By James W. Crawley and Gil Klein

WASHINGTON -- The planned move of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington from Norfolk to Japan sends several signals, both to Japan and to China, say defense analysts.

The carrier will replace the Kitty Hawk, the Navy's oldest warship, in 2008. It marks the first time a nuclear-powered Navy vessel is to be permanently stationed in Japan.

Pentagon officials would not talk on the record yesterday about the carrier's transfer, awaiting an official announcement by U.S. and Japanese officials. Privately, officials acknowledge that the George Washington will move.

Japan agreed last month to accept the basing of a nuclear-powered warship at the large U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, but no ship was named at the time.

The country and its citizens have been hesitant to host nuclear-powered warships because the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II. Even 60 years after the war's end, local residents protested last month's announcement.

Security concerns -- North Korea in the near term and China in the long term helped ease Japan's nuclear phobia, said defense analyst Loren Thompson.

"Having a U.S. carrier there, especially a more modern one, is probably welcomed by many Japanese," said Thompson, who is with the Lexington Institute.

Japan, he added, has growing concerns about China's increasing naval strength in the western Pacific Ocean.

The United States had limited options to replace the Kitty Hawk, which burns diesel fuel in its boilers, analysts said.

"It's been several decades since the U.S. built a conventionally powered carrier," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

The Kitty Hawk, built in the early 1960s and moved to Japan in 1998, is too old to modernize and too expensive to maintain. The only other non-nuclear carrier, the John F. Kennedy, is slated for retirement.

Nevertheless, the move is three years off.

"This is not a done deal," said Virginia Rep. Thelma Drake, R-2nd, who represents the Norfolk area. She said yesterday that Pentagon officials had not notified her of the carrier's move.

She said several issues, including the anti-nuclear worries of local Japanese living near Yokosuka, have not been resolved yet.

For Norfolk, the GW's home port since it was commissioned in 1992, the ship's departure could mean the loss of about 3,000 sailors and $225 million in payroll and local contracts.

The economic impact of the flattop's departure will depend on several factors to be decided in coming months.

The Pentagon is undergoing a broad defense strategy review that will determine the shape, size and plans of the military for coming decades.

Called the Quadrennial Defense Review, the study will set the size of the Navy and how many carriers it will operate. If the review calls for fewer than the current 12 ships, Norfolk could lose.

Drake said the defense review's finding could change the Navy's plans.

Also up in the air is the fate of the Florida-based Kennedy. The Navy planned to retire the warship this year, but strong congressional opposition to downsizing the carrier fleet to 11 ships prompted the military to postpone the decommissioning until next year, after the defense review. If the Kennedy is scrapped, Virginia officials worry the Navy will move a Norfolk-based carrier to Florida.

Norfolk could still mitigate the GW's loss if the Navy decides to locate its next carrier, the George H.W. Bush, in Norfolk. The Bush is under construction at Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard and should be commissioned in 2009.

The GW's relocation was likely the result of some interesting diplomatic decision-making, analysts and military officials said.

Three nuclear carriers -- the Truman, Nimitz and yet-to-be-completed Bush were scratched off the short list immediately. All three would have caused negative reactions from the Japanese, Pike said, because the namesakes of all three were involved in World War II.

The Truman was named after President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the atomic bombings of Japan. Nimitz was named after the Navy's top commander in the Pacific, and the first President Bush was a Navy bomber pilot who was shot down by the Japanese.

"They had prominent roles in the recent unpleasantness," Pike said.

Pike said George Washington was a good pick from the Japanese point of view because the carrier was named after the first president.

Times-Dispatch Washington correspondent Peter Hardin contributed to this report.


Copyright 2005, Media General News Service