Oahu residents could be getting a lot of new neighbors and seeing a lot of changes in Kaneohe Bay over the next decade as the Marine Corps embarks on plans to radically restructure its entire force by 2030.
The Marines are retiring old vehicles and weapons and buying new ones with an emphasis on sea operations, as well as relocating thousands of troops from the Japanese island of Okinawa to bases in Australia, Guam and Hawaii.
Marine Corps Base Hawaii is set to receive about 2,700 of these Marines, along with their spouses and children, starting around 2027. But the military has yet to lay out a plan for how it will accommodate new arrivals and equipment at the relatively small base on Kaneohe Bay.
“We absolutely suck at facilities planning, we don’t know how to do it,” said Nate Nathanson, a retired senior Marine logistics officer. “And because we don’t know how to do it, we muddle our way through it. And the end result is typically a facility that doesn’t support the needs.”
The relocation of troops from Okinawa — part of an agreement with Japan — has been in the works since the 1990s. In a 2008 document laying out those plans, the Marine Corps noted that in Hawaii “the increase in active duty Marines and their family members will present challenges for installation support.”
The document went on to note that “while current training areas can support additional Marines, MCBH will still be 167,000 acres short of maneuver training areas per Marine Corps standards, if additional space is not secured when the full contingent of additional Marines are in place.”
A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office noted that with troops set to begin arriving by 2027 the Pentagon “has not resolved” these issues and “the addition of the Marines will likely cause additional strain on already stressed training ranges in Hawaii.”
The Pentagon’s most recent cost estimates for the influx of Marines in Hawaii ranged between approximately $1.3 billion to $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2012 dollars and the GAO noted that “actual costs will vary depending upon the mix of units and the facilities needed.”
The GAO also noted that the estimates did not include long-term maintenance costs or a timeline of work that needs to be done but said the Pentagon argued that “high-level cost estimates are sufficient at this early planning stage and a detailed Work Breakdown Structure is not needed.”
“Infrastructure planning takes years to complete in advance of allocating resources for particular needs in a budget,” the GAO warned. “Without infrastructure planning to support mission requirements … the Marine Corps risks not having the necessary infrastructure to fulfill its needed capabilities.”
The Marines have begun transforming the makeup of their force as part of an ambitious restructuring of how it fights, but still lack specific plans for the base.
A Marine Corps Base Hawaii spokesman said facility requirements would be “driven” by the pending results of separate studies on land use and range and training area requirements.
“The specific requirements for additional forces or structures have yet to be defined,” the spokesman, Capt. Eric Abrams, said in an e-mail.
The military has in recent years begun efforts to modernize aging military facilities in Hawaii, but some of those projects have become points of conflict with neighboring communities.
Recently the Army and Navy laid out plans to move munition storage from the Navy’s Lualualei Annex near Waianae to its West Loch Annex. The current facilities were built between 1932 and 1942 and were originally designed for a railway transport system. But the plan angered local residents who felt it put explosives too close to densely populated communities.
The vision of the new Marine Corps is being laid out by its Commandant Gen. David Berger. He foresees a leaner and more high tech fighting force that will use stealth technology, drones, missiles and cyberwarfare. That process is starting with units on Oahu.
Nathanson said that he broadly agrees with the direction Berger wants to take the Marines, but he worries that plans to make it happen by 2030 “may be a little bit unrealistic in terms of the facilities and the logistics kind of catching up with it.”
The Star Advertiser reported last week that the Marines will be removing all of their current amphibious AAV personnel carriers as well as all cannon-based artillery. The cannons will be swapped out for new mobile ballistic missiles that Marine commanders hope to use to sink enemy ships from batteries that Marines would set up on islands.
Hawaii also will be the first to receive new Light Amphibious Warships to haul these Marines and their missiles to islands around the region. The new warships will be central to the Marines’ new fighting style and will be operated jointly with the Navy. Up to 40 sailors and at least 75 Marines will serve on each ship.
According to the Congressional Research Service the new ships will be between 200 and 400 feet long and cost between $100 million to $150 million. The Pentagon intends to begin procurement in the 2022 fiscal year. Navy and Marine officials would not say whether the new ships will be homeported at Pearl Harbor or at MCBH.
Nathanson said that the jointly crewed ships will need mooring and drydocks for operations and maintenance, as well as security and ways to potentially keep observers from peeking in on new technology. “That all takes real estate, that all takes planning, that will take the Navy and the Marine Corps agreeing to what these boat facilities need to look like,” he said.
The Marines are no strangers to Navy ships, but they’ve historically been aboard as passengers. With these new warships and their operations, the Marines would be much more intimately involved in leading operations both on land and at sea.
If the docks are at the Marines’ facilities at Kaneohe Bay, it would be a major change that would also include studies into the environmental impact of building them and of operating the new warships there.
Meanwhile, while Marine officials are reluctant to discuss what they’re considering on that front, work on bolstering base security already has begun.
“As a base we have taken a close look at our current security infrastructure and are in the process of enhancing our facilities to better meet future needs,” said Abrams. “An example of this type of improvement is the ongoing construction at the base’s Mokapu Gate, which will increase the base’s overall security posture.”
Mo Radke, chairman of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board and a Navy veteran, is more worried about the impact on the community — especially the already crowded housing market — when the new Marines begin to arrive.
“To add that much folks into a small housing market makes things real challenging,” Radke said.
Radke said that he has doubts about how much room the small base has for troops and families.
The military recently spent millions upgrading substandard housing on bases even as housing allowances for troops living off base have been blamed for contributing to the island’s high rents.
Last year Naval Facilities and Engineering Command Pacific granted Nan Inc. a $118 million contract to build new barracks for enlisted Marines that would include laundry facilities, lounges, administration offices, recreation rooms and housekeeping areas. It’s expected to be completed in December 2022.
Nathanson said the need for more training facilities would also likely meet local opposition, meaning Marines may have to be sent to sites in Australia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
“I don’t think the locals are going to go for more live fire ranges on the island, nor do I think there’s space for it. So your only choice is either the Big Island or go all the way to Guam,” he said.
The Marines are also changing the way they fly. The Marines in Hawaii will be ditching all of their traditional helicopters, including CH-53E Super Stallions, UH-1Y Venoms and AH-1Z Vipers, most of which are set to be decommissioned.
They’ll instead focus on operations of “tilt-rotor” MV-22 Ospreys and adding a new squadron of KC-130 refueling planes to carry troops long distances across the Pacific.
MCBH also will receive six new missile-armed MQ-9A Reaper drones, which have longer wingspans than the RQ-21A Blackjack drones that already operate out of the base and may need upgraded facilities of their own.
Radke said that an increased emphasis on drones is a welcome change since they tend to be quieter and can more easily linger offshore for missions than helicopters. But he adds that where the Marines train needs to be a continuing discussion.
“That’s the nature of the business and we happen to have a base right over here on the Mokapu peninsula,” Radke said. “So what we need to do instead of railing with passion against it is to figure out how to coexist.”
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