Warning sounded on conditions at US Navy bases

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. (Stars and Stripes file photo)
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va. (Stars and Stripes file photo)

Warning sounded on conditions at US Navy bases

by: Hugh Lessig | .
Daily Press | .
published: January 09, 2016

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Funding shortfalls have forced the Navy to delay maintenance at its shoreline installations, including Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, and that risks degrading fighting ability over time, Navy leaders said Friday.

Testimony before a House panel chaired by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, painted a picture of the Navy treading water when it comes to maintaining its homefront bases. Limited money allows for critical maintenance jobs, but other work is being sacrificed to ensure sailors are prepared for combat.

"Where we are today is holding," said Vice Adm. Dixon R. Smith, who heads Naval Installations Command.

Also testifying was Capt. Louis J. Schager, the commander at Oceana, the Navy's East Coast master jet base. Schager said important work is underway, and he thanked Congress for freeing up $100 million to replace a 1950s-era lighting system for the airfield.

He recalled a time when that system failed, knocking out half the lights. For a base that operates around the clock, "that was very disconcerting," he said.

But much work remains to be done, including fixing leaky hangar roofs and renovating substandard barracks.

Smith and Schager called for a predictable and sustainable source of money to plan long-term maintenance projects and get ahead of the curve. The recent budget deal inked by Congress will help, but it doesn't meet the service's long-term needs.

"To get back to 100 percent, we have to shoot ahead of the duck," Smith said. "And we're not shooting ahead of the duck."

Wittman is chairman of the readiness panel on the House Armed Services Committee. This was the second of three hearings held to determine how lack of investment in homefront bases risks the ability of U.S. armed forces to be ready for combat abroad.

The subcommittee has already heard from the Army and Marine Corps. It is scheduled to hear from the Air Force next week.

The panel is gathering information ahead of drafting a bill to authorize defense spending for the next fiscal year, Wittman said.

"This has been very, very helpful to us," he told the panel of naval officers, which included Rear Adm. Mary Jackson, commander of Navy Region Southeast.

Schager provided several examples of maintenance needs at the base in Virginia Beach.

All hangars "have issues and challenges," he said. "A lot of roofs are leaking. We have some fire protection challenges."

The problems have piled up, thanks to budget shortfalls over the past several years.

"If I had enough money to repair all of the hangars right now, I couldn't do it," he said. Work could proceed on one hangar at a time because of limited capacity to shift squadrons to other locations.

The base has 13 barracks, and 10 are rated as substandard in some way. Of those 10, the Navy has plans and funding in place for five barracks. In addition, a new barracks is being built for $30 million that will be finished in March.

Another nagging problem is a building at the Dam Neck Annex, where information specialists train. It logged 57 fire department calls in the last fiscal year — not fires, but reports of leaks, odors or sensor problems.

"Each time that call goes out, you have to have all these students leave the building," he said. "It's disrupting their training."

The students still completed their training, and the Navy is spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a temporary fix.

"But it's a $12 million unfunded project to really, truly fix the problem," he said.

The Navy officers found a sympathetic audience with members of Wittman's committee. Many represent military-heavy districts in San Diego, Hawaii, the Gulf Coast and the New England region.

Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, a Democrat from Guam, said she was conscious of the risk posed by lack of maintenance.

"The minute you neglect maintenance," she said, "you're in trouble."

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