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Honolulu Advertiser July 10, 2005

One shipyard too many?

Hawai'i suddenly finds itself in the uncomfortable position of defending the storied Pearl Harbor shipyard before a nine-member commission in charge of reducing the number of U.S. military bases.

By Dennis Camire

WASHINGTON — Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard vs. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Hawai'i suddenly finds itself in the uncomfortable position of defending the storied Pearl Harbor shipyard before a nine-member commission in charge of reducing the number of U.S. military bases.

And the decision will likely come down to an argument of "military value" versus "strategic value."

Just a few weeks ago, workers at Pearl and many other installations across the country felt relief when the Pentagon did not include their bases on its list of recommended closures and realignments. But that list is only a first hurdle.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, creates the final list of installations to shutter or reconfigure, and will forward it to President Bush and eventually Congress in early September.

The commission surprised Hawai'i by asking the Pentagon for more information about its recommendations, including the decision to close Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, instead of Pearl Harbor.

"People at Pearl might think they dodged a bullet. Well, maybe they didn't," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and security Web site. "People at Portsmouth would think, well, maybe there's hope after all."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will appear before the commission on July 18 to answer questions about the Pentagon's recommendation. That explanation and the difference between the two shipyards as presented to the commission could ultimately spell the end of one and perhaps the growth of the other.

Hawai'i's business and political leaders have vowed to fight for Pearl.

"Everybody understands the importance to the economy of Pearl Harbor and the people who work there, but the larger issue for the country is the importance as a key component in our defense, and that's how the decision should be made," Gov. Linda Lingle said Friday. "If it's made on that basis, I think we'll be fine."

The state's congressional delegation, which is well-connected to the military, will also try to use its influence. "There is no question to me that the country needs Pearl Harbor," said U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The uncertainty affects only the Pearl shipyard. There has been no talk about the closing Pearl Harbor naval base itself.


The two shipyards — Portsmouth founded in 1800 and Pearl in 1908 — have deep roots and historic significance.

Part of Portsmouth's mission statement reads, "To Keep America's Navy #1 in the World," and it claims the titles "Cradle of American Shipbuilding" and oldest naval shipyard continuously operated by the U.S. government.

At Pearl, the stated mission is to keep the Navy "Fit to Fight." With roots that date to the 1800s, long before its official founding, the shipyard on its Web site boasts of having "seen the world's navies transition from sail to steam to nuclear power." Shipyard workers helped rebuild the Pacific fleet after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The decision to close Portsmouth was made after the Navy — in looking ahead at its forces to 2025 — decided it could close one of its two smaller shipyards with the expected decommissioning of an aircraft carrier and planned reductions in attack submarines.

The workload then would be spread among the remaining three — Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington and the Pearl Harbor shipyard.


But the commission, in seeking more information, noted that the Pentagon's analysis showed Pearl Harbor having a lower military value compared to Portsmouth or the other two shipyards.

Military analysts, supporters and the Navy say the bottom line for keeping the Pearl Harbor shipyard open is its location in the central Pacific and the need for a forward repair facility since the Navy is building up its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

With an annual payroll of $385 million, Pearl has 4,297 civilian and 778 military personnel capable of doing work on all but Reagan-class Navy ships. With an annual payroll of $283 million, Portsmouth has 4,300 civilian and 104 military personnel who work on three classes of submarines.

Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said that while Hawai'i is a high-cost location for doing military support, it is much closer to the area of concern than Portsmouth or any other Navy shipyard.

"The whole point of the base-closure process is to organize the military for future challenges," Thompson said. "The reality is that Pearl Harbor is becoming the most valuable public-sector shipyard we own because of its location."

But Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said efficient work at the Portsmouth shipyard enabled the delivery of submarines back to the fleet a total of 60 weeks early over the past five years.

"One month of transit time certainly, I think, is well compensated by the fact that they save so many months in efficiency (that it is) immaterial where that shipyard is located," she said.


The big issue raised by the commission is the "military value" score in the Pentagon's analysis.

Portsmouth scored marginally higher than Pearl Harbor in the analysis, which looked at the capacity of the two shipyards to handle the normal workload and their ability to do more in the future in 35 categories — from air conditioning to nuclear engineering and planning. (Norfolk and Puget Sound scored substantially higher than either Portsmouth or Pearl Harbor.)

Despite the score, the Navy chose to close Portsmouth because it was the only shutdown that would both eliminate excess capacity and satisfy the strategic objective to have ship maintenance capabilities close to the fleet, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"This, quite honestly, is a smoking gun reflecting the failure of the Navy to meet its own (base closing selection) criteria when it put the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the list," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., when defending Portsmouth last week at a commission hearing.

But Jeremiah J. Gertler, a military analyst who worked for BRAC during the 1995 round of base closings, said the military analysis itself may be flawed for not including a strategic value for Pearl Harbor's location.

"The department has stated wide open that they have a focus on the Pacific and it may have been that was in everybody's mind when they chose Portsmouth over Pearl for closure but they never put it into the numbers," he said. "There has to be objective numbers to back it all up. The commission is a bunch of auditors."

The GAO report also found indications that within the next three years, there would not be much, if any, room for unanticipated ship repairs at the remaining three shipyards if Portsmouth was closed. Navy officials said any unanticipated repairs would be handled by delaying scheduled work and overtime, which they noted is not any different than what is done now, the report said.

Advocates for Portsmouth also argued that the Pentagon's estimated saving of $1.26 billion over 20 years from closing the shipyard did not include a number of one-time costs that would lower the amount.

"While it is questionable whether all of these costs should be included, our analysis shows that if all are included, the projected 20-year savings would decrease by $192 million, or 15 percent," said the GAO report.


Portsmouth supporters also are concerned that the Pentagon's cost-and-savings analysis did not take into account the shipyard's recognized efficiencies, which could translate into additional costs for the Navy if the shipyard is closed. They estimated that shipyard saves $82 million over the other Navy shipyards for each submarine refueling and $26 million for each depot modernization.

But the Navy said that the scope of the work is not always the same, depending on the condition of each submarine, and that wages, especially at Pearl Harbor, are higher than in Portsmouth, according to the GAO report. However, the Navy said they were reviewing the efficiency analysis prepared by the shipyard.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, challenged the idea of comparing the two shipyards altogether.

"How on earth can you be comparing ... a ship-repair facility in the Northeast in the U.S. in the Atlantic Ocean and a facility out in the middle of the Pacific 2,500 miles from the mainland of the United States? Why would you compare the two — one of which has dozens of ships including nuclear submarines home-ported there, against a shipyard and port that has no ships home-ported?" he said.

"They both have their rationale. You don't compare them any more than you compare 7-foot basketball players with soccer players."

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