Besieged US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro simply cannot get a break. It’s budget season, and as other duty secretaries brace for the Pentagon administration’s next budget, revealing new secret agendas or sketching out ambitious new strategies for the Indo-Pacific, Secretary Del Toro entered his fifth month on the job dealing with a second major self-inflicted Navy crisis in the Pacific.
This time in Hawaii, a mix of aging infrastructure, poor communications, and a general nonchalant approach to environmental management forced the Navy to suspend operations at the Red Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Hill, a massive WWII fuel storage complex that is perched above an aquifer providing about 20% of Honolulu’s drinking water.
Fuel apparently entered the aquifer, affecting a separate Navy well and water distribution system serving approximately 93,000 people. The idle crisis exploded in the public eye in late November, when hundreds of military families noticed their water smelled of fuel. The Navy struggled to respond, backing down and setting off what has become a demoralizing race to identify health issues and protect military dependents. Military families across Oahu are scrambling to relocate or secure bottled water, temporary showers, and makeshift laundry services.
As the response collapsed, in secret, the Navy moved quickly to shut down Red Hill and stop using a potentially contaminated well. But these measurements, taken out of public view, prevented any integrated civilian / military effort to slow the potential movement of contaminants through the threatened aquifer. The community’s failure to develop an integrated civilian / military real-time water monitoring program slowed the release of laboratory tests that could have provided better warning of the impending crisis. Over the weekend, as Honolulu faces water conservation measures, the governor of Hawaii ordered the closure of the Red Hill facility and the congressional delegation from Hawaii is crying for blood.
Ultimately, the Navy’s categorical response to this crisis, compounded by a general disregard for interagency communication – a hallmark of any command led by the current Indo-Pacific Combatant Command boss, Admiral John C. Aquilino – has, in effect, compromised America’s strategic viability in the Pacific.
The cause of the contaminated drinking water is under investigation, but the preponderance of evidence points to the Navy’s massive Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility, where a 250 million war reserve gallons of Jet Propulsion Fuel No. 5 (JP-5), Jet Propulsion fuel No. 8 (JP-8) or marine diesel fuel is stored in an aging complex of 20 underground fuel tanks dating back to World War II.
For the Navy, the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility is a critical asset. In a crisis, without Hawaii’s wartime fuel supply, the Navy and Air Force would shut down very quickly. But, on the Pacific Islands, clean water is also essential, and the Navy’s fuel storage facility at Red Hill sits just 30 meters above one of the most important aquifers in Hawaii.
The margin for error is minimal, and the Navy, as it is increasingly becoming, has made many unforced errors.
Operational arrogance is not an oversight
Built in the 1940s, the unnoticed Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility operated behind the scenes until the mid-1990s, when the facility itself was declassified. Things changed abruptly in 2014, when botched maintenance work on the tank, which the Navy admitted was “the result of faulty work by our contractor,” as well as poor oversight of the project by the Navy, leaked 27,000 gallons of fuel.
Faced with increased surveillance from a rather hostile national water agency over the leak, the Navy decided to declare victory almost immediately, declaring in 2015, “We have instituted tough new safeguards to avoid a future fuel loss “.
The strategy seemed to be working pretty well. Things calmed down until 2019, when the Navy had to recertify with the state and obtain approval to operate the Red Hill facility for a period of five years. The certification effort was disputed, and in March 2020 the Navy detected a mysterious fuel leak at the Pearl Harbor ‘Hotel Pier’ and in January 2021, just before a critical Red Hill recertification hearing, the leak was been traced back to a Red Hill. the drain line, which is part of a network of supporting infrastructure that is all part of the Red Hill complex.
Rather than acknowledge the source of the leak, the Navy doubled down on its operational arrogance. In February 2021, the Navy issued a boastful press release, claiming that “the Red Hill facility exceeds industry and regulatory standards.” Considering the unrecognized leak from the Pier Hotel, the Navy statement danced to the verge of truth, stating that “the only reasonable conclusion is that the Red Hill tanks are not leaking and the water drinking is safe “.
The statement has not aged well. Three months later, according to an October Navy press release, “an operator failed to follow specific procedures,” blowing an expansion fitting. Some 1,618 gallons of JP-5 leaked. Then, on November 21, the Navy responded to a “release from a fire escape line at Red Hill,” which resulted in the capture of some 14,000 gallons of a water-fuel mixture. The rejection ended with a note of optimism that “there is no sign or indication of releases to the environment, and drinking water remains potable.”
The Navy was wrong. A few days later, military families began to notice that their drinking water smelled of fuel.
Playing golf as the pillars of Indo-Pacific strategy crumble
It is difficult to stress the disarray facing the Indo-Pacific theater of operations.
Long unresolved ship handling issues metastasized into the cessation of navigation of the Navy’s elite sub-fleet and the long-term loss of the USS Connecticut (SSN-22), a key Pacific submarine. The 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) fear lessons did not take hold, leading to an ill-advised layover in Vietnam and the COVID-19 debacle aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). Despite a long series of shipyard fires, lax supervisory discipline resulted in the loss of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6), a key flat-top from the Pacific. And, today, the Biden administration learns that the lessons of the 2014 Red Hill fuel leak have not been learned.
As things continue to fall apart, senior Navy officials seem blithely out of touch and irresponsible. As the Navy’s fuel crisis worsened in the first week of December, key Navy leadership left the field. Admiral Aquilino left Hawaii for Simi Valley, California, joining Admiral Michael M. Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, to address a star-studded crowd at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum.
It is a major crisis. In Hawaii, the military are furious. The Governor of Hawaii and the Hawaii Congressional Delegation are united in calling for the deactivation and emptying of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. To compound the problem, there are very few options available for moving emergency fuel stocks. And with the closure of Red Hill now on the table, it will take decades and billions of dollars to move fuel storage facilities to safer locations on Oahu or to sites spread across the Pacific.
Red Hill is almost irreplaceable. Outside of war, Red Hill’s fuel supports emergency responses in Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific. Powered by gravity, Red Hill is one of the few fuel depots that can operate manually, without being exposed to cyber interference. It supports accelerations of the operational tempo, supporting naval contingencies and critical events such as the biannual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, where a massive multinational fleet works together off the coast of Hawaii.
Red Hill is no surprise vulnerability. Easy access to fuel has guided Pacific strategy for over a century. Even today, as the Navy remembers the first World War II hits at Pearl Harbor, strategists now view the dramatic surprise attack as a strategic failure because Japan left its bulk fuel reserves untouched. Marine. It is ironic that the modern US Navy, with its operational arrogance and nonchalant management, is on track to do what Japanese attackers failed to do 80 years ago.
The foundations of the American Indo-Pacific strategy are crumbling because the Navy does not devote its energy to preventing preventable accidents. The Navy has simply underestimated the risks facing modern operations; As more people oversee the navy, seas become more congested, and demand for critical resources declines across the Pacific, the margin for error is also shrinking. Investments in avoiding unforced errors may seem insignificant, but the Navy’s rush for distributed hypersonic lethality means little when a poor assessment of risk and an uncanny tolerance for preventable accidents literally sinks the Navy.
Secretary Del Toro is new to the job, but he certainly has enough business experience to know it’s time to be held accountable at the top. Any leader with a history of troublesome responses to COVID-19 and presiding over preventable secondary accidents – who then inexplicably chooses to tackle certain corporate swells rather than tackle a strategic crisis at the heart of their command – Is probably a very good place to start.