The amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima is one of three amphibs that will be homeported at Naval Station Mayport. (Navy)
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After choking off funding to make the Navy's second-largest East Coast base a homeport for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Navy signaled Friday that Jacksonville, Fla., will remain a sizable homeport by shifting an amphibious ready group there over the next three years.
All three ships are being relocated early from Norfolk, Va., to Naval Station Mayport, the Defense Department said in a news release.
"I am very pleased that the Navy is able condense the time horizon for the arrival of the Mayport ARG," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in the statement. "The move underscores just how important Jacksonville and Naval Station Mayport are to our national defense, and how committed we are to strategic dispersal on the east coast."
The Navy's footprint in the Jacksonville area has shrunk substantially in recent years, as frigates have been retired.
The first ship in the amphibious ready group that will be homeported at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., will arrive in the last quarter of 2013, Mabus said. The amphibious transport dock New York will shift from Norfolk, Va., in 2013, followed by amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima and dock landing ship Fort McHenry in 2014.
Budget constraints have put on hold the dreams of local leaders to get an aircraft carrier transferred to the base near Jacksonville, which hasn't had one since the John F. Kennedy was decommissioned in 2007.
As of March 28, just 19 ships with 5,017 sailors called the base home. In the 1980s, the base boasted two aircraft carriers, 28 combatants and nearly 30,000 sailors.
Since 2000, the Navy has sent only one ship to the base, the destroyer Farragut in 2006.
And the numbers continue to fall, with all 11 frigates at Mayport slated to be decommissioned by 2015, along with three of the base's four cruisers. The remaining cruiser, Philippine Sea, is slated to move to Norfolk.
In addition, one of Mayport's four guided-missile destroyers, the Carney, is slated to move to Rota, Spain. So without any new ships, that would have left Mayport with just three destroyers at the base at the end of fiscal 2015.
Local politicians had hoped the base would soon host a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, a move expected to cost between $500 million and $1 billion. Until earlier this year, the carrier was slated to arrive in 2019, but the move was put on hold because of budget constraints.
Virginia lawmakers strongly opposed the carrier move, saying spending money to build a second nuclear homeport on the East Coast was a bad idea while Navy facilities worldwide needed upgrading.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert has told local leaders the Navy will also bring three more destroyers, three coastal patrol boats and eventually eight littoral combat ships to the base, but gave no timeline for those moves, though sources say the PC's will begin to arrive next year from Little Creek, Va., and the new destroyers will also be moved over the next three fiscal years.
email@example.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Sam Fellman and firstname.lastname@example.org?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this story.