Hope remains for base Poseidons

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station may yet get its share of the new P-8A Poseidon aircraft, the long-awaited replacement for the P-3C Orion sub-hunters.

According to a Navy Office of Information spokesman at the Pentagon, the airbase has been pushed back to third in line to receive the new aircraft, and a study is under way to determine whether to permanently staff just two bases with Poseidons rather than three.

But it’s still entirely possible that NAS Whidbey will get its four P-8 squadrons (24 total airplanes) as planned.

“No final decisions have been made,” Navy spokesman Lt. Myers Vasquez said.

Oak Harbor was rocked last week when it learned through a statement by Congressman Rick Larsen that the Navy had altered some of its plans for the P-8s, the 737-based airframe the Navy is planning to use as the replacement for the older turbo-prop P-3s.

“Uniformed leadership of the Navy at the highest level has decided that Jacksonville and Hawaii will be the first two homes of the initial P8-A squadrons,” said Larsen, in the release. “It is still possible that NAS Whidbey Island will be home to P-8A squadrons in the future.”

“NAS Whidbey Island will remain critical to the U.S. Navy as the center of electronic attack, home of the Navy Growlers, as well as the potential future homes of P-8As and the replacement platform for the EP-3 squadrons,” the release said.
But it’s more than just a “possible” or “potential” future home. According to a 2008 long ranging planning document called the Record of Decision, all three bases — Jacksonville, Fla., Kaneohe, Hawaii; and NAS Whidbey — will house the aircraft by 2019.

“The only thing that’s changed is that Jacksonville and Hawaii will get the initial P-8s,” Vasquez said.
Deciding not to send P-8’s to NAS Whidbey would take a lengthy and public process. As it was required with the 2008 record of decision, the Navy would have to conduct an environmental review and gather community input through a series of public meetings.

The Navy does appear to be moving in that direction. Vasquez confirmed that an analysis for the various basing options is under way, and “potential efficiencies in moving from three to two main operating bases” have been determined.

Whidbey left out on construction

Vasquez also confirmed that military construction funding for needed P-8 infrastructure at NAS Whidbey was not included in the Navy’s Future Years Defense Plan — an annually updated budget document that projects out five years. The money would have been to used to prepare for the Poseidon’s arrival, such as the construction of a hangar large enough to house the new jets.

According to Larsen’s office, the number of Poseidon aircraft that will be ordered from Boeing during the years 2012 to 2016 has also been reduced from 103 to 92. However, Vasquez said the Navy still plans to build a total of 117 aircraft, as dictated in the record of decision.

That planning document also seals the fate of the P-3. Whether the P-8s make it to NAS Whidbey or not, the bases’ existing four Orion squadrons and the roughly 2,600 jobs they represent, will transition to the Poseidon aircraft by 2019.

While permanently losing those jobs would be a big hit for Whidbey Island’s economy ­— their payroll alone is believed to contribute about $87 million a year — others worry what the move will mean for the base and its complement of EA-18 Growlers.

More Growlers, more noise?

“Without this marine patrol and reconnaissance force on Whidbey, I fear more emphasis will be placed on increasing the Growler platform which clearly has greater noise impacts on our residents and particularly school children,” wrote Island County Commissioner Angie Homola, in an emailed statement. “A diversified base which provides enhanced mission readiness and a better economic outlay for local businesses is preferable.”

Larsen, a Second District Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, learned of the plan change in a phone call from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead just hours before his press release.

According to the statement, the move was a strategic decision based on the Navy’s belief that the Poseidons need to be as far forward in the Pacific as possible. Larsen said he would demand a full explanation, a promise that he carried through with.

“The decision by the Navy to not locate the P-8As at NASWI concerns me, and I request a complete breakdown of the justification for this decision — in either a classified or unclassified briefing — as soon as possible,” wrote Larsen, in a letter he sent to Roughead the following day.

In a later interview, Larsen said he’s optimistic that NAS Whidbey will eventually get its P-8 squadrons as he has “gotten no indication” that the Navy is planning otherwise. But even if that door were to close, it may just mean that another opens.

For example, plans to replace the EP-3  — a signals reconnaissance version of the P-3 — with an EP-X have been cancelled. Whatever eventually replaces it, such as unmanned arial vehicles and their entourage of support personnel, may find a home in Oak Harbor, he said.

“The bigger point is the Navy sees Whidbey Island as a place to send things,” he said.

Larsen estimated that  the soonest he’ll know anything definitive about the P-8 and its future at NAS Whidbey would be next year during the next budget cycle.

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