Rep. Larsen: Defense shift toward Asia-Pacific good for Whidbey

Jan 14, 2012

Skagit Valley Herald

By Whitney Pipkin

January 14, 2012

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said Friday that a shift in the country’s defense focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region could help confirm the future of the sub-hunting P-8A planes at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Larsen, D-Wash., along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, wrote a letter to the chief of Naval Operations in September urging him to make good on the U.S. Navy’s decision to bring the new planes to Whidbey in 2017. Admiral Jonathan Greenert responded to that request in December, saying that Whidbey would indeed be the third base to receive the new fleet behind bases in Florida and Hawaii.

Starting this year, the P-8A Poseidon will begin replacing the aging, submarine-hunting and maritime patrol P-3 Orion fleet. The air station near Oak Harbor is currently home to four P-3 squadrons that employ an estimated 2,600 people.

While the Department of Defense’s 2008 Record of Decision addressing where and when the new P-8As will be based hasn’t changed, Larsen and others have felt the need to keep pressing the issue — just to be sure.

“We need to always continue to communicate with the Navy how important we believe these facilities are,” Larsen said Friday during a visit to Skagit County.

Squadrons in Jacksonville, Fla., are scheduled to begin receiving the first P-8As this year, with Kaneohe, Hawaii, receiving the next batch in July 2015. Whidbey Island is scheduled to receive the planes starting in January 2017.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Larsen spent the past week visiting military bases in Hawaii and California and continuing to emphasize the importance of Whidbey’s and other Puget Sound military bases.    Larsen said his confidence in the value of these Pacific-based fleets was reiterated this week when President Obama said the U.S. will now focus more of its defense efforts on the Asia-Pacific region.

The shift in focus, he said, reinforces the Navy’s decision to base four P-8A squadrons at Whidbey, where they are best poised to be involved in the Pacific effort. The base in Hawaii won’t have room for more than the three squadrons it’s scheduled to receive, and the base in Jacksonville is on the Atlantic Ocean, Larsen said.

Larsen would like to see the Navy’s current plan for Whidbey come to fruition, and he believes it will.

Officials from NAS Whidbey have said they’re making plans to support the P-8A program, which is closely tied to the station’s future. The air station is already home to the first rounds of EA-18G Growlers, the replacement aircraft for the Navy’s older EA-6B Prowlers, used for electronic warfare.

Larsen said the air station could continue without the nearly 30 P-8As it is scheduled to receive, but that he doesn’t intend for that to happen.

“Whidbey could still exist without the P-8s,” he said. “But it will exist with the P-8s.”