U.S. Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. has tried to win political support for the Navy's "homeporting" plan by promising at least two prominent senators that extra ships and repair work will be assigned to their states, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter alleged Thursday.
Hunter, a Coronado Republican, said Lehman has made "pork barrel" promises to U.S. Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) during the fight over homeporting, which was rejected by the House in June but is still under consideration by the Senate.
"Unable to sell its strategic homeporting plan to the Congress on its military merits, the Navy has turned to blatant pork barrel politics," Hunter said in a press release, adding that Lehman "has abandoned his primary role as a national security advocate to become a lobbyist for Navy political interests."
The homeporting plan would scatter the Navy's fleet along the nation's coasts, rather than keep it relatively concentrated in ports like San Diego. The Navy says homeporting would make the fleet, which the Reagan Administration hopes to expand to 600 ships, less vulnerable to attack.
In a long-distance telephone call Thursday night, Hunter said he is upset with Lehman because the Navy secretary is so busy pressing for homeporting that he is ignoring a move by Congress to delete the Trident submarine from next year's budget.
"Right now we're having our Navy budget cut to pieces and the secretary is sending people to lobby, not for these strategic weapons, but for his pet project of homeporting," said Hunter.
A spokesman for Lehman said late Thursday that the Navy secretary was aware of Hunter's charges.
"The strategic rationale for the homeporting plan is clear-cut," Capt. Michael Sherman quoted Lehman as responding.
Congressional opposition has centered on the cost of the plan. Critics have said the Navy has seriously understated the expense of building 13 additional ports, and on June 25 the House deleted funding for the program from its military construction appropriations bill.
Now the battle shifts to the Senate, which will make its final decision on its version of the military spending bill.
In a letter dated June 4, Lehman told Warner that the homeporting plan meant two extra ships, five additional guided missile cruises and nine more nuclear-powered attack submarines for the Norfolk, Va., area.
"All of these will bring substantial new short-term maintenance work to both the public and private shipyards in your area," Lehman wrote.
The next day, Warner changed his vote during a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Hunter. Warner first voted against homeporting as a member of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee in April.
"There's nothing wrong with Mr. Warner doing what's most advantageous for his state," Hunter said. "Elected representatives work all the time to secure work for their districts or jobs for their districts."
However, Pete Loomis, a spokesman for Warner, said Lehman's letter "had no weight" in the vote.
He said the senator changed his mind after consulting with naval strategists and getting assurances from Lehman that homeporting would not hurt Norfolk's ship repair industries.
"If the homeporting plan were not approved, there would be many more ships added to Norfolk," said Loomis, estimating the addition to be about 20.
Hunter said that Lehman made yet another promise to Hatfield, chairman of the Senate's Appropriations Committee, that the Navy would include Portland within the Puget Sound homeport region.
"Because of the Navy's ship repair policy, Hatfield had been given in essence the same short- term repair work promises as Warner," Hunter's release said. Hunter did not say what Hatfield's position is on homeporting.
Hatfield could not be reached for comment.
Hunter said he is against homeporting.
"Our ships are safe in existing home ports, and additional ports do not offer significant additional protection to the fleet in return for the estimated costs to build the 13 new ports," he said.