WASHINGTON — U.S. military spending is on the rise, and Hawaii is likely to be a financial beneficiary, especially when it comes to expanded sea power.
A $578 billion defense bill, up $5 billion overall from last year, was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday on a bipartisan vote of 371-48. It included a $7 billion boost in procurement specifically for fighter jets, ships and helicopters.
The smooth passage of the House’s defense bill came a week after President Donald Trump said he planned to bolster defense spending next year by $54 billion. He’s expected to issue his proposed budget within the next few weeks.
Honolulu is headquarters for the U.S. Pacific Command, so an increase in defense spending likely means more ships stationed in the islands, more construction on military bases and an expansion of activity at the shipyard at Pearl Harbor. It is also likely to create more high-paid defense-related jobs in the future for Hawaii’s youths.
“We’re going to get more,” said U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, in an interview with Civil Beat on Wednesday. “A lot of it will be coming into the Pacific.”
She said that the U.S. buildup is coming in reaction to increased defense expenditures by China and Russia.
On the seas, for instance, the U.S. has 201 combat vessels, but China now has 235 and Russia has 185, according to a recent naval force analysis by the Mitre Corp. China has 63 attack submarines; the U.S. 54.
The U.S. still has the advantage, because it has many more large combat vessels such as aircraft carriers, according to the Mitre report, but the two other nations have been narrowing the gap.
“There’s no question the threat is Russia and China, which are building Navy ships at a fast clip,” Hanabusa told Civil Beat. “The question is if the U.S. can keep up and what the U.S. role should be.”
Military experts say increased spending is needed not just because there are new threats, but also because the existing U.S. fleet, much of it built in the 1980s, is worn out and needs to be modernized. Defense hawks want the U.S. fleet, which now includes 274 combat and support vessels, to be expanded to more than 350.
Near the end of his presidency, President Barack Obama had come to share the belief that more ships were needed. On Dec. 15, Ray Mabus, Obama’s secretary of the Navy, told the Pentagon that military analysts were recommending a 355-ship fleet.
The nation’s complex budget picture is leading to many uncertainties, including for defense spending. President Trump has espoused a number of conflicting financial priorities, and it is hard to know how they will be reconciled.
How, where and when more ships would be built is uncertain. And it will all certainly be subject to intense lobbying by elected officials whose home districts include defense contractors and large privately owned shipyards on the mainland.
Repairs on the vessels would be done primarily at four government shipyards in Maine, Virginia, Washington state and at Pearl Harbor. Ships built in the coming years would be refurbished and maintained at these four locations in the decades to come.
That means a ship built in, say, 2020, and home-ported in Hawaii, would be a repeat source of business in the state until 2050 or later. If the Department of Defense authorizes infrastructure construction projects at Pearl Harbor, it would indicate that the Pentagon expects to be making a long-term investment of military resources in the state.
Hanabusa said it is not a sure thing that the home-porting or repair work would come to Hawaii. She also noted that many people in Hawaii oppose military expansion in the islands and would prefer to see the military’s footprint reduced, not expanded.
Moreover, to compete with mainland communities that also want the economic development the military brings, Hawaii would need to decide to take steps to facilitate military growth in the state.
Land limitations may make it necessary for the military to install a floating dry-dock that could be moved around to make repairs on the ships.
In addition, to provide an adequate workforce for the civilian maintenance facilities, Hawaii’s young people would need to be educated in specialized skills, and apprenticeship programs would need to be expanded to meet the increased demand for the workers.
Hanabusa thinks that it is possible for Hawaii to surmount the challenges.
“I feel optimistic about it,” she said.
Increased defense spending would come at a cost to other national priorities, and the debate is likely to become increasingly heated as other government programs lose money in the fray. More money for the Pentagon means less for education, public housing, environmental initiatives and workplace regulation.
Those tough choices are in the future as the congressional budget debate proceeds.
In Wednesday’s vote, 141 Democrats supported the House defense bill while 43 voted against it. Some 230 Republicans voted for it; only five voted against it.
Hanabusa and Hawaii’s other congresswoman, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, supported the bill.
In a statement, Gabbard,a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said she voted for the measure because it “maintains our commitment to a strong national defense.” She said it will also maintain “security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region by ensuring that Pacific Fleet continues to receive the resources it needs to maintain a ready posture.”
The funds authorized by the House bill would allow the Navy to purchase 13 ships, including three guided-missile destroyers, three littoral combat ships and one amphibious landing platform dock. It also provides funding for more than 80 jets of varying kinds and 28 Lakota light-utility helicopters.
Congress ordered three separate independent evaluations of how an enlarged fleet should be configured to meet the nation’s needs in the year 2030.
Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said he asked for the studies two years ago because large numbers of aging Navy combat ships will need to be taken out of operation from 2020 to 2035, and will have to be replaced. In addition, he said in a statement, the United States is going to need to construct a number of attack submarines, which are particularly costly to build.
At a hearing of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee on Wednesday, members discussed the studies and asked about the proposed mix of ship types. Officials who had worked on the reports testified and responded to their questions. On several occasions, they said they could not be more specific in a public forum without disclosing defense secrets.
“We are in competition and we want to be careful about what we say in front of adversaries,” said Rear Adm. Jesse A. Wilson, director of the Assessments Division for the Chief of Naval Operations.