US ports preen as Navy searches for home bases for its new ships

''Unless we're planning to go to war with Canada, the Navy sure isn't going to park any (ships) here,'' says James Haskel, deputy port director for the City of Milwaukee.

But he wishes it would.

So do a lot of other cities.

The decision to build, base, and overhaul ships for the Navy invariably arouses charges of political favoritism against those ports (and their congressional supporters) who get them. And when those decisions occur during a recession and just before national elections, the charges proliferate.

In the next six years, 133 new hulls will slide down the ways of America's shipyards. About half of this construction will replace ships slated for retirement. The remainder, a net increase of more than 60 ships, must be assigned a permanent port - a place each ship's crew and its families can call home. It means more civilian jobs plus millions of dollars annually for repairs, refueling, and resupply while the ships are anchored.

New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Rhode Island and Washington states already have the inside slip as ''home ports'' for ships stationed stateside, says Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, who was in Boston recently to help celebrate the USS Constitution's 185th anniversity.

Critics claim the timing of the home port announcements are tied to the elections and to drumming up votes for congressional supporters of President Reagan's program to expand the Navy from 450 to 600 ships.

For example, they cite the fact that Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington, pro-Pentagon and up for reelection, announced recently (a week before naval information officers at the Pentagon even knew) that the Navy will base a 12 -ship aircraft carrier task force in his state. Some 4,000 civilian jobs accompany it.

Navy officials counter this charge, saying it stands to reason the states with the best ports are going to have elected officials who are, if not pro-Navy , at least deeply interested in maritime affairs. Secretary Lehman says that home port assignments are based solely on military factors.

''We look at the mission of the battle group involved and that determines where we place ships. Our decison to station some ships in Boston is despite the fact that Senators Kennedy and Tsongas have voting records against Navy appropriations,'' he says.

Boston and New York are competing for the 8-to-15 ship battlegroup assigned to the battleship USS Iowa. The city that gets the Iowa can count on as many as 3,000 sailors coming ashore every two months, with their families already there. The 58,000-ton battlewagon is being outfitted at Pascagoula, Miss., and is scheduled for recommissioning in 1985. Some escort ships will go to the loser.

The battleship New Jersey has already been assigned to Long Beach, Calif. Newport, R.I., the proposed site of four Knox-class frigates, can count on more than 2,000 people - crew and dependents - coming to the area.

Kingsbay, Ga., and the Bremerton-Puget Sound area in Washington state are the sites for the Navy's new Trident submarine. Fifteen of the underwater behemoths are scheduled for construction (two have been completed). The first 10 are to be stationed in Washington by 1989 and the remaining five in Georgia after that date. Hundreds of millons of dollars already have been pumped into the Washington site.

The Navy says at least three factors are central to its decision on where to base ships: pier facilities, availability of housing for the crews and their families, and the area's industrial base. Navy figures show that for every $1 it spends in a port, $4.31 works its way into the local economy.

''Depending on how hungry the port is, they might provide all kinds of services to the Navy,'' says Milwaukee's Mr. Haskel. ''But the main reason the Navy would choose a port is that it fits the mission of the battle group and gives quick access to the open sea.'' Unfortunately for Haskel, quick access to the open ocean is not Milwaukee's strong suit - one reason he says he's not seriously bidding for basing.

Brian Dacey, director of the Economic Development Industrial Commission for the City of Boston, says: ''We're getting ready to provide them with specifics about the types of facilities, docks, piers, etc., that we have. We're not necessarily bidding or competing with other cities. We're waiting for the Navy to make up its mind on what it wants.''

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