CORONADO, Calif. – 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 Usama 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 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.