Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro visited Hawaii last month for a solemn commemoration of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and a bit of sunshine, but instead stepped into a storm. A literal downpour caused widespread flooding across the islands, and equally serious leaks around the Navy fuel farm called Red Hill contaminated drinking water on Oahu.
The ensuing crisis is shedding light on the weaknesses in U.S. military infrastructure that could prove highly problematic in a potential conflict with China. The Pentagon should act decisively to protect Oahu’s aquifers and stop deferring investments in Indo-Pacific posture that are needed to deter Chinese aggression.
On the eve of World War II, the Roosevelt administration recognized the vulnerability of above-ground fuel stores at Pearl Harbor and commissioned a crash construction program to secretly build 20 steel-lined underground storage tanks encased in concrete. More than a dozen workers died erecting the resulting engineering marvel that has been compared to the Hoover Dam and can securely store 250 million gallons of fuel, more than anywhere else in the United States.
Red Hill has ably served the nation, but the nearly 80-year-old facility is showing its age. A series of spills over the past decade heightened public concerns that fuel could seep into an adjacent aquifer and forced the Navy to agree to upgrade the facility by 2037, but the Navy has estimated the project will not be complete until 2051.
That approach appears to have been 30 years too slow. Earlier this month, hundreds of families served by a well near Red Hill smelled fuel coming from their faucets, causing the Navy to suspend operations at the facility. Navy officials now suspect the contamination stemmed from an operator error that has already been addressed, rather than leaking tanks, but the crisis has cast a shadow over the entire facility and makes clear 2051 is not soon enough.
Shutting Red Hill would be straightforward, but the facility is more vital than ever. China has improved its ability to attack bases throughout the Indo-Pacific region, and the Pentagon has swapped many of its underground fuel tanks in California, Washington state and on other Pacific islands for lower cost but more vulnerable aboveground tanks. These shifts make it even more critical for Red Hill to be able to securely supply ships and aircraft in a crisis or conflict, just as the Biden administration confronts an increasingly belligerent China.
The challenge at Red Hill is emblematic of widespread infrastructure deficiencies throughout the U.S. military. For decades, the Department of Defense deferred modernization, and now the bill is coming due as buildings, piers, and runways age or are rendered obsolete by security threats or rising oceans.
Even in priority theaters like the Indo-Pacific, the military’s latest infrastructure projects seemingly underestimate adversaries. For example, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and northern Australia, the U.S. plans on building a pair of above-ground fuel tanks that would be vulnerable to Chinese attack and could only supply a couple weeks’ worth of operations. These weaknesses undercut deterrence and embolden Chinese aggression.
Moving forward, the Navy will need to thoroughly clean the spill at Red Hill and swiftly fund a plan to enhance the security of its fuel stores. This could include upgrading Red Hill’s tanks or replacing them with double-hulled, underground tanks that allow for interstitial monitoring and maintenance. As construction progresses, the Pentagon can house a portion of its fuel stocks in leased commercial tanks on Oahu and aboard maritime tankers that would complement Red Hill’s underground stores.
More broadly, the Pentagon will need to shift from a brittle fuel architecture to a resilient one that can sustain distributed operations amidst attacks and help deter adversary aggression. Given the Department of Defense’s delays, this will not be cheap or easy, requiring billions of dollars and aggressive implementation plans that skip standard bureaucratic processes.
Red Hill is the latest in a string of black eyes plaguing the Navy, from collisions to failed shipbuilding programs. It comes at a time when confidence and trust in the military is declining nationally, and faltering even further in Hawaii. Del Toro said the current crisis is “very personal” for him. As he and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin finalize the president’s budget proposal for next year, remediating Red Hill and shifting to a resilient posture in the Indo-Pacific should be atop their priorities.
Timothy A. Walton is a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology. He recently published a report titled Resilient Aerial Refueling: Safeguarding the US Military’s Global Reach.