By Jim Haley Special to The Herald
When the Navy was seeking to build a new homeport for warships in the 1980s, Everett was chosen partly because of a “warmer” community welcome and partly because it is strategically located on the north coast with a deep-water port.
After all, the north Pacific was becoming an area of increased interest given emerging trade routes with China and the cantankerous military events of the North Koreans.
Naval Station Everett’s valuable deep-water port, one of only two on the West Coast, hosts an aircraft carrier, a national asset in high demand by the nation’s leadership, said Capt. James Duke Jr., the base commander.
“Aircraft carriers are central to our nation’s defense and maritime security. Homeporting a carrier strike group here is the reason why this base was built,” Duke said.
The Defense Department had a bigger picture in mind.
In the 1990s, during a series of base-closing initiatives, the Pentagon made it clear not only that Naval Station Everett would be built, but also that Puget Sound would become a mainstay hub of Navy installations.
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was boosted with more airplanes and personnel, the Bangor submarine base on the Kitsap Peninsula would continue and two aircraft carriers would be based in the area — one in Everett and the second in Bremerton.
More recently, Navy brass announced the switch of one carrier from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with growing national interests in that area. There are now 11 operational carriers, six on the West Coast. The USS Abraham Lincoln, formerly stationed in Everett, is not currently operational due to a major refueling effort.
The location of Everett, with quick access to the Pacific, is something the city of Everett continuously pounds home to Pentagon leaders on periodic trips to Washington, D.C. The city wants to keep the newest and most modern base at the Navy’s disposal, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said.
“Our interface is with the base commander and the captains of the ships,” Stephanson said. “We’re here as their advocates.”
That means a lot of talking to state legislators and members of Congress, said Pat McClain, the city’s governmental affairs specialist. It also entails occasional conversations with Pentagon officials who frequently move in and out of positions there, he said.
“We’re supporting them in Olympia. We’re supporting them in Washington and the Pentagon,” Stephanson said. “If there’s a need there that is important to the base or the strategic mission of the Navy, we’re advocates.”
The military bases around Puget Sound are “tremendously important to the Navy,” said Capt. Jeffrey Ruth, commanding officer of the USS Nimitz. The Nimitz just returned from a nearly nine-month deployment traveling some 80,000 miles in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and in the Red and Mediterranean seas.
There’s increasing focus on the Pacific, Ruth said.
“It’s a big deal,” Ruth said. “And as a deep-water port (Everett) is easy to get in and out of, and the community takes good care of our families, especially when we’re gone.”
Besides the Nimitz, Naval Station Everett is home to four smaller warships and a pair of Coast Guard cutters.
The Everett-based USS Ford, a frigate with a crew of about 200, was recently decommissioned. The Navy plans to decommission two other frigates in coming years. All three will be replaced by guided-missile destroyers, each with a crew of around 300, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, said.
“The Navy needs places to put ships. They want to disperse the fleet and they want a fleet that can get to the Pacific quickly,” Larsen said.
The Ford’s replacement will be a destroyer that is expected to come in 2015 or 2016, Larsen said. When the frigates USS Ingraham and USS Rodney M. Davis are put in mothballs, they also will be replaced by destroyers. That’s expected to happen by 2020, the congressman said.
There’s room for even more destroyers at the base, he added.
Replacing the frigates with destroyers will mean adding about 300 sailors assigned to the naval station, Larsen said.
“Naval Station Everett is currently prepared to support any additional personnel that would result from potentially replacing homeported frigates with destroyers,” base commanding officer Duke said.
In the meantime, the base will continue with about 6,500 military, civilian and contract personnel working there at any given time. About 1,500 of them are contract workers, Duke said.
The base contributes about $245 million a year to the local economy through payroll, plus another $72 million in purchase of goods, services and contracts.