WASHINGTON — The Navy is disputing a report from Hawaii that Navy officials said would delay deployments to the Pacific by up to a month.
It said officials already have been onsite and located all but one of the tanks, a Navy spokesman said.
“While the precise nature of Hawaii’s recommendation is not completely clear, the report is inaccurate and premature,” said Cmdr. Jamie Barnett, a spokesman for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
His comments came late Friday in response to a report from Hawaii Reporter quoting Steve R. Marshall, the director of Hawaii’s Hawaii Maritime Trade Administration who wrote to defense officials requesting that all of the fuel tanks on Hickam Field, the Navy’s main base in Hawaii, be drawn down and drained.
Marshall’s letter was prompted by a draft of a new “operational work plan” that Navy officials last week released, according to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, who confirmed hearing that draft from a Navy official Friday.
The plan would slow and then permanently stop the ship move of Navy fighters and ships through the island chain, Hanabusa said. If allowed to proceed, it also would prevent commercial flights and ships from using Hawaii, effectively halting economic activity on Oahu and in the rest of the state, she said.
“This is a huge threat to the state and economy,” Hanabusa said. “We need to speak out and share our concerns now.”
The Navy declined to talk about the report or the draft plan, which was recently given to the government of Hawaii but has not been made public, Barnett said.
Barnett declined to say whether the Navy had received requests to deactivate or draw down tanks at all bases in Hawaii. The work plan for now is not yet being released to the public and Navy leaders, including Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, and Adm. Harry Harris, head of the Pacific Command, had not yet been made aware of it, he said.
The draft proposal, which has not been seen by The Washington Post, already has prompted “greater cooperation” between the Navy and Hawaii officials, Dickinson said. “We also expect a good defense relationship and war fighting partnership to continue,” he said.
The Navy already has begun correcting the problem on one of the tanks that Marshall said is “unlikely to be addressed before approximately July 15.”
Marshall said he based his decision to call for waterborne tank deactivation and drain on information that Navy officials told him without any public briefing, which he said would be contrary to federal law. His letter said officials told him they would remove the fuel from the tanks if they were found in need of attention.
Richardson said the Navy has no reason to think a refueling operation through the Pacific is impossible. It has previously conducted refueling operations near Asian shores. The Navy has conducted refueling operations through the Arabian Sea for six years.
“That’s a geographic, strategic and economic reality,” Richardson said. “It has to do with the operational reality.”
The refueling process, known as a “mile-high” operation, would not immediately slow speeders or other fighters, such as F/A-18 Hornet fighters or Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets, due to engines. Midlevel fighter commanders could decide to keep planes that are in well in transit for refueling in the air or on an aircraft carrier, which has a stable of F/A-18s, to engage in strafing or defensive flying to keep enemy air defenses honest.
Richardson said the Navy will need a patchwork of alternatives for midlevel fighters and that after the Navy completes its evaluation of possible options, it will take into account operational scenarios.
“We’re constantly rethinking the requirements to find out how we can get through this,” he said.
To stay afloat, Navy fighters have been making multiple stops at sea before returning, creating an ongoing environmental and safety hazard, according to the Air Force Association.
The Navy already must deal with inspections and maintenance of 50 to 75 offshore defense vessels and 100 active duty ships and submarines every year. And its failure to keep track of refueling operations through the Pacific could add another risk and another layer of bureaucracy, the association said.
When its Central Command was responsible for operations in the Persian Gulf, near the same sites, it conducted several refueling operations in the area, according to Bob Hunter, the association’s director of forces policy.
“While we don’t want to overregulate the Navy, if you stop them from refueling, it will affect the readiness level of the fleet,” Hunter said.