Everett, Oak Harbor leaders wary of coming cuts to defense budget

EVERETT — Mayor Ray Stephanson believes the Navy’s presence in Everett will remain strong in the future, despite major cuts to the Pentagon’s budget that seem likely in the coming years.

In Oak Harbor, however, Chamber of Commerce executive director Jill Johnson said her community already has been watching the slow erosion of the number of air station personnel. With Whidbey Island’s economy so dependent on the Navy, even the loss of a few jobs makes a dent, she said.

“For example, when Navy Region Northwest consolidated, we saw many of the Navy’s civilian jobs go over to Bremerton. And with them went the paychecks that support our local businesses,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to overreact with the news about the president’s new strategy, but we are trying to assess what our position will be. We realize it’s a new economy for everybody, even the federal government.”

President Barack Obama’s military defense strategy announced a week ago may not mean big or immediate changes at Naval Station Everett and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Outlining his military priorities after a decade of costly wars, Obama asked the Pentagon to reduce the Army and Marine Corps and focus spending money to counter potential threats from China and Iran.

What all this might mean to Navy Region Northwest is unclear, said Navy spokeswoman Sheila Murray.

“At this point, it’s all speculation,” Murray said. “There are no answers yet.”

With new emphasis on the Pacific, however, the Navy is expected to keep its current fleet of 11 aircraft carriers and accompanying warships. Some federal officials had suggested retiring one of the carriers as a cost-saving measure.

“I don’t believe the Pentagon would send us the USS Nimitz to replace the USS Lincoln if the elimination of our aircraft carrier was imminent,” Stephanson said. “I understand that it was difficult to sustain two wars and that military officials will have to make tough choices. I just think that the Navy’s presence here has the potential to grow. We have not heard of any talk of reduction.”

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, agrees and said he believes no one should worry about the loss of economic benefits the military brings to his congressional district.

“The USS Nimitz is coming to Everett, and it will be based there for a very long time,” Larsen said Tuesday by phone from Honolulu, where he was attending a defense industry roundtable and meetings with the U.S. Pacific Command.

The pivot in attention to Asia means that Navy bases on the Pacific, especially in Everett and Oak Harbor, are well suited to support the mission, Larsen said.

Stephanson and Larsen believe there’s room at Naval Station Everett for more ships, and both plan to lobby for more.

“Naval Station Everett can and ought to be a home port for additional destroyers as we eventually see the decommissioning of the Navy frigates,” Larsen said. “Everett is well placed for additional destroyers in the Pacific Ocean.”

Everett is the home of the frigates USS Ford, USS Rodney M. Davis and USS Ingraham and the destroyers USS Momsen and USS Shoup.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station will continue to be the home base for electronic attack Growler squadrons and is third in line to get the new Boeing P-8A Poseidon, a long-range anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, Larsen said.

“We’ll be investing more in the Asia focus; nevertheless, we have huge deficits, and the entire federal budget has to be scrutinized,” Larsen said. “The Department of Defense can spend its tax dollars more efficiently.”

On Wednesday, Larsen met with Pacific Command officials to speak up for the strategic importance of Navy Region Northwest in the Asia-Pacific military focus.

“No one should worry. We’re on the Navy’s radar,” Larsen said.

Congress has approved $662 billion in Pentagon spending for next year. That is $27 billion less than Obama requested and $43 billion lower than this year’s budget.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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