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Sen. Mazie Hirono wants to shore up aging military infrastructure

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono questioned a panel of experts about military infrastructure in the Pacific during a Senate Armed Serv­ices Committee hearing Wednesday.

The Pentagon is looking to beef up its military presence in the Pacific, and recently signed new basing agreements with Japan and the Philippines as regional tensions simmer with China amid disputes over territorial and navigation rights. But for years, even as the Pentagon has spent billions on new high-tech weapons systems, the facilities that house, maintain and support them have become an afterthought.

“In the last year there have been numerous issues with the military’s infrastructure in Hawaii — from water-main breaks to toxic chemical leaks and spills endangering our ground­water,” Hirono, D-Hawaii, said during the hearing. “I know that these kinds of events are not particular to Hawaii. Across the country, we need to better maintain and modernize our (military) infrastructure to take care of our people, get our systems out of maintenance on time and be able to support national security.”

Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was recently tapped to chair the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, which oversees military logistics strategies and policies. In a news release Wednesday, she said upgrading infrastructure and increasing cooperation with regional allies were her top priorities on the committee.

Aging infrastructure in the Pacific has been a long- standing gripe from military leaders, particularly Army officials in Hawaii who say lack of funding has allowed their facilities to crumble as soldiers cope with mold and power outages. In January during a tour of Hawaii military sites, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told reporters, “I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t happy with what I saw, frankly.”

“Especially with the examples of what’s happening in Hawaii, we have aging infrastructure which we tend to ignore until something breaks,” Hirono said. “Then you have Tripler (Army Medical Center), which is the main military hospital, not having water or not having electricity — we can’t have that and maintain readiness.”

Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told Hirono in her testimony that as Chinese missiles become more sophisticated and able to hit targets farther away, the military is spreading its forces to more locations around the Pacific. That means the U.S. military will need to learn how to more quickly repair and replace infrastructure.

“We will need to be able to disperse our assets so we’re not relying on any particular base,” Lin said. “In order to be able to maintain that function, particularly for airfields, we need to harden our infrastructure. We also need to work with our allies and partners to make sure that we have the capabilities to quickly repair, for example, runways and other facilities.”

But for many Hawaii residents, the situation at the Navy’s underground Red Hill fuel storage facility represents the largest — and most pressing — maintenance failure. In November 2021, fuel from the facility tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system, which serves 93,000 people, including service members and civilians who live in former military housing areas.

The military is now working to drain the 104 million gallons of fuel in the facility’s tanks, which sit just 100 feet above a critical aquifer that most of Oahu relies on for clean water. The facility was built underground during World War II to protect it from Japanese air attacks, and for years the Honolulu Board of Water Supply had expressed concerns that the aging facility posed a danger to the island’s water supply.

The crisis has prompted some island residents and officials to reassess Hawaii’s relationship with the military even as the Pentagon looks to beef up its presence in the Pacific. As the military prepares to defuel the tanks — a process expected to be completed by summer 2024 — it plans to redistribute the fuel to locations around the Pacific to supply ships and planes of its own forces and allies.

The U.S. is negotiating agreements with the Compact of Freely Associated States that would allow the U.S. military to operate freely in the waters and airspace of the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands in return for development funding, visa-free travel to the U.S. by citizens of those countries and other services.

“While it does have a deterrent effort, it is also causing China to think, ‘Well, how do we counter this?’” Lin said. “As China looks at this, what China is looking for is what they find as the weakest link among our allies and partners. And they probably also have in their mind thinking, ‘Well, do we also need the same sort of partnerships and alliances?’”