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The Virginian-Pilot & The Ledger-Star

Navy Must Refute Embarrassing E-Mails

14 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

In its decision to put a practice landing field for Oceana jets in northeastern North Carolina, well out of earshot of Hampton Roads, the Navy has some explaining to do.

The Navy must convincingly refute charges that politics had far more to do with the decision to take 30,000 acres of Washington County, N.C., private property, than the law, environment or even the training needs of its pilots.

At issue is the integrity of the process that led to the picking of sparsely populated Washington County as a site for the new, noisier F/A-18 Super Hornets to practice carrier landings. The alternative is Fentress Field, now ringed by new Chesapeake subdivisions. Without Washington County, the jets will be bouncing well into the wee hours at Fentress.

In 2000, the Navy had examined putting all 10 squadrons of the new version of the jet at Naval Air Station Oceana. Theres plenty of hanger space at Oceana for all 10.

Beach and Chesapeake residents and Washington share-the-wealth politics made the Navy think twice. In 2002, the service recommended that eight Super Hornet squadrons and their lucrative side benefits go to Oceana and two go to Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, N.C. The Washington County practice field was part of the package.

But that decision seemed to contradict the Navys own criteria, which states that a practice field be located within 50 nautical miles of the air station. The site in Washington County is more than 70 miles from Oceana.

Its also only five miles from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts more than 100,000 waterfowl inherent dangers to aviation in the winter months.

For two years, cynics have believed the two squadrons of Super Hornets were headed to Cherry Point simply and solely to reduce political opposition to the Washington County practice field.

Now several e-mails have come to light that seem to lend credence to the view that politics was a primary driver, not a secondary benefit. They were included in a lawsuit by the fields opponents who say the Navy manipulated the process. They want it overturned.

Having just lost its Vieques bombing range in Puerto Rico to national politics, the Navy should have been extra careful to have conducted a relentlessly honest, straightforward and fair process in what the service surely knew would be a controversial decision.

The e-mails paint a different picture. In a 2003 missive, the Navys liaison for the project wrote that one of the services civilian leaders thought placing two jet squadrons in North Carolina was necessary to get the states lawmakers to back the landing field.

In another, from September 2002, a member of the Navys operations team wrote of the secretary of the Navys staff, In a nutshell, they want us to fabricate reasons why split-siting ... [is] beneficial to operational readiness. I have explained several times that there is zero operational benefit to split-siting.

A member of the Navys environmental study team wrote the same month, I gather were still struggling on how to address the OLF distance issue ... I have a very uneasy feeling about our criteria and the process. Another replied: ... Now we have to reverse engineer the whole process to justify the outcome.

The National Environmental Protection Act requires the Navy to examine a range of options for a project like this, not justify a predetermined site.

Yet opponents say the Navy rejected more than a dozen other landing sites including three in Virginia because they didnt meet the Navys criteria, even though Washington County didnt fully meet them, either.

If these allegations are true, the Navy has justified confiscating private property for less than honorable reasons. Perhaps the Navy has a logical explanation for all this. Its hard to imagine one that will remove the doubts.

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