Saturday, May 14, 2005

State awaits decision on
nuclear aircraft carrier

The Pentagon's recommendations to close more than 30 major military bases on the mainland made no mention of Hawaii's current campaign to home-port a nuclear aircraft carrier and an accompanying air wing to Pearl Harbor.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye said the fifth and latest round of Base Realignment and Closure Commission deliberations "is something that is separate. It's a picture that is not yet completed."

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie advocated a go-slow approach until many of the social and economic questions that accompany a carrier with more than 6,000 sailors and aviators and their families are answered. The last time a carrier was based at Pearl Harbor was during World War II.

"Should a decision be made" to home-port a carrier in Honolulu, Abercrombie said, "I will insist that the federal government accompany this decision with that there will be enough support for to build the infrastructure to support it."

More than three years ago, the Navy spent $1.8 million to determine whether Pearl Harbor could support a carrier along with the nearly 20 other vessels now berthed there.

Part of that study also called for an examination of island locations where more than 70 jet fighters, support aircraft and helicopters from a carrier could be located. The prime candidate has always been Kalaeloa, which still has two 8,300-foot parallel runways and one intersecting 8,411-foot runway built when it was used as Barbers Point Naval Air Station.

However, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission shuttered Barbers Point in 1993, and an ambitious economic plan was proposed when the 4,603-acre base finally closed six years later.

Although none of the plans ever materialized, the area became a bustling bedroom community that might not welcome the sound of jet aircraft taking off and landing in their back yard.

The Navy still has not released the findings of a $1.8 million study, but there have been suggestions from congressional leaders to split the carrier's air wing, using Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe and Hickam Air Force Base.

Inouye, a longtime backer of the Navy relocating one of its 12 carriers to Hawaii, also said: "We have to be very careful to ensure that the state will have the important infrastructure to support a carrier. This is not only a challenge for federal government, but also for the state and county governments. We have to work together."

Like Abercrombie, Inouye stressed that the nation and the military's strategic interest should determine whether another carrier should be placed this far in the Pacific.

"If so, the two logical areas are Guam and Hawaii," he said.

"At first glance it would seem that Guam might be a better location because of Hawaii's high cost of living. But that is not the case if you look at the entire range of costs. Hawaii already has the infrastructure in place to support a carrier group. With Guam you would need to build highways and more schools and health facilities. It would be like starting from scratch."

The last time the Navy studied the possibility of stationing a carrier group in Hawaii was in 1998. It estimated then that a Pearl Harbor-based nuclear carrier would have meant an annual Navy payroll of $126 million with a crew of 3,000 sailors and equal number of aviators and support personnel.

Seven years ago the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii estimated that Hawaii would gain $375 million annually with the creation of the 4,200 jobs that came with berthing a carrier here.

Three of the Pacific Fleet carriers are in San Diego; two, in Puget Sound in Washington; and one, in Japan. Six carriers are assigned to the Atlantic Fleet on the East Coast.

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