Turn toward Asia may secure NAS Whidbey

Jan 19, 2012

Whidbey News Times


January 19, 2012

President Barack Obama’s plan to keep a closer eye on Asia may mean good things for Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

At least, it has some elected officials buzzing about what the new defense strategy will mean for both Oak Harbor and the region. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen spent time last week visiting groups and newspapers across his district talking about how the new strategy will affect the region.

“We’re in a good position here as a home port of naval aviation assets,” Larsen said.

The Second District Democrat is  a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chairman of the bipartisan U.S.-China Working Group.

Earlier this month, the president announced that the page on a decade of war was turning. Operations are winding down in the Middle East and the military will now begin shifting its gaze to the Asian-Pacific theater.

According to Larsen, a Second District Democrat, the move could have long term impacts for military installations across the West Coast, particularly for bases such as Naval Station Everett and Whidbey Island.

An operational pivot to Asia increases the strategic importance of both bases. While growth may be unlikely at a time when military spending is being curbed, it goes a long way toward firming up their long-term presence.

In Oak Harbor, it bodes well for the arrival of the P-8A Poseidon, the replacement aircraft for the aged P-3C Orion sub-hunters.

While Navy officials have repeatedly assured that the new plane will arrive as planned, albeit later than thought, the president’s announced focus on Asia provides further surety that it will come to Oak Harbor despite cuts in planned military funding over the next 10 years.

The Navy is in the process of transitioning from the older turbo-prop Orion to the jet-powered Poseidon. Last year, it announced that two other bases would get the replacement aircraft first, which caused widespread concern that it may not arrive at Whidbey at all.

Business leaders on Whidbey Island have been relieved by the continued assurances of the military but are even happier about the change in focus toward Asia.

“This is fantastic news,” said Ron Nelson, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council.

With about 10,000 total personnel, including military and civilian, the air base’s economic impact in the area is estimated at about $500 million annually, Nelson said. Not only does that make the Navy a vital player in the health of the island’s economy, it makes them by far the largest employer in Island, Watcom, Jefferson, San Juan and Island counties.

“There is nothing bigger,” Nelson said.

Hefty cuts are planned in defense spending over the next 10 years and the military has been charged with completing a clean audit no later that 2017. The congressman said the audit is important and necessary, but that the cuts should be put into prospective.

The cuts are reductions largely in planned budget growth. For example, 10 years from now the defense budget will still be larger than that in the final year of President George W. Bush’s  administration.

It’s difficult to know what the air base will look like in 50 years, especially with the emergence of unmanned technologies, but for the immediate future things are looking bright, Larsen said.

“The pivot to the Asian-Pacific strategy should give people in Oak Harbor and North Whidbey Island more solace about the future of this base,” Larsen said. “I’m 100 percent convinced about the future of the air station Whidbey Island.”