Navy to promote itself during historic hoops game

The fighter jets are gone from the flight deck, and in their

place is a gleaming basketball court surrounded by bright green

bleachers – a stark contrast to the gray, 95,000-ton Navy warship

that buried Osama bin Laden at sea.

Friday’s historic North Carolina-Michigan State basketball game

aboard the USS Carl Vinson couldn’t have come at a more opportune

time for a Navy facing deep defense cuts.

Officials plan to seize the spotlight to showcase the Navy and

its awe-inspiring, multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers to the

more than 3 million viewers expected to watch the Veterans Day game

on ESPN.

The country’s basketball-fan-in-chief, President Barack Obama,

will be onboard for the game.

With the war in Iraq officially over and the one in Afghanistan

winding down, the military is almost certain to shrink. All

branches of service are feeling pressure to tout the importance of

their missions and their equipment.

Navy officials say they know a basketball game will not change

the budget debate, but it can’t hurt efforts to get the American

public excited about their branch of service as its chiefs lobby

Congress to avoid cuts that could jeopardize its future military

strategies.

The role of the Nimitz-class supercarriers in modern warfare has

been part of that discussion with critics questioning whether

anti-ship weapons have turned them into white elephants that are

too expensive to risk losing in a war. In 2015, the Navy plans to

add to its fleet the Gerald R. Ford, the lead ship of a new

three-ship class of supercarriers. Each is expected to cost about

$9 billion.

Capt. Bruce H. Lindsey, the Vinson’s commanding officer, said

viewers Friday will get a firsthand look at just how important

carriers are to military operations, from sending aircraft into

Iraq and Afghanistan, to supporting relief efforts during disasters

such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. The program will

feature snippets about Naval life aboard the 1,092-foot floating

airport.

”It’s an awesome opportunity to showcase Naval aviation and

your Navy,” he said.

The Navy wants to show Americans how their tax dollars are being

spent, said Rear Admiral Dennis Moynihan, the Navy’s chief

spokesman.

”It’s their aircraft carrier, they have paid for it,” Moynihan

said. ”They are the shareholders, and it’s important they

understand how we are spending those dollars in the Navy … it is

sort of a report to shareholders.”

Critics say the United States now has too many carriers, and the

Navy can do the same missions with smaller, more economical

vessels.

With 11 carriers, the U.S. Navy has more than the rest of the

navies on the planet combined, said Christopher Preble, a Navy

veteran and foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute. Most are

Nimitz-class vessels, the world’s largest warships.

The amount of money needed to build a carrier could be used to

build more than a half-dozen destroyer ships, Preble said.

”I’m a huge basketball fan, and I think it’s good for the

sailors who are going to get to see a good game and it will be neat

for the players,” he said. ”But I don’t think the Navy will be

able to use this to sell the idea as to why it needs aircraft

carriers.”

The game will be watched by a prime Navy recruiting market –

young people. Magic Johnson and James Worthy will serve as honorary

captains for their alma maters at the game, attended by 7,000

mostly active-duty military personnel off the coast of San

Diego.

Obama will have the seat of his choice, but he won’t be arriving

on a jet like then-President George W. Bush did when he made an

arrested landing in a fixed-wing aircraft on the USS Abraham

Lincoln in 2003. Bush used the ship as a setting to announce the

end of major combat operations in Iraq under a banner hung on the

warship reading ”Mission Accomplished.” Opponents criticized it

as a publicity stunt.

Morale Entertainment Foundation approached the Navy last summer

with the idea of a carrier basketball game and offered to foot the

bill. The Navy agreed on the condition the event not interrupt its

scheduled deployments or compromise national security, Moynihan

said.

Sailors prepared for the upcoming deployment of the Vinson in a

few weeks while workers built the basketball court and arena on the

flight deck of the floating fortress docked at the Navy base in

Coronado with sweeping views of downtown San Diego.

A second basketball court is being built in the hangar deck in

case of rain – which is in the forecast. North Carolina’s Tar Heels

prepared its freshmen players for the opener by having them dance a

routine on the deck while wearing life preservers. Both teams will

wear camouflage uniforms.

Walter Chatlin III, a sailor from Houston who was deployed when

the Vinson buried bin Laden at sea, watched forklifts carry the

basketball court’s floor boards Tuesday and said it all seemed

surreal.

”I’m an operations specialist so seeing you know, seeing the

jets land on the flight deck all through the deployment, and now

we’re going to have a college basketball game on it, seems pretty

cool,” he said. ”We need some R and R time … We need to get a

little break before we get deployed again.”

The ship is named after former U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson, a Georgia

Democrat known as the father of the two-ocean Navy because of his

success in pushing through bills that greatly expanded and

modernized the Navy’s warship fleet during his time in Congress

from 1914 to 1965. He was chair of the House Armed Services

Committee when Congress authorized the procurement of the first

nuclear-powered aircraft carriers starting with the USS Enterprise

in the late 1950s.

Carriers became the backbone of U.S. sea power after WWII,

ferrying military might around the world in crises and conflicts in

such places as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan.