Navy May Need More Than $5 Billion To Fix Its China Lake Base After Powerful Quakes

The service needs to completely replace dozens of buildings at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which is its premier test and development base.

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The Navy may need more than $5 billion to return Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake to a "mission capable" status following a series of earthquakes back in July. The sprawling base, which houses the service's premier developmental test facilities for aircraft and weapons, sustained significant damage, including to the highly specialized facilities and the equipment within them.

A pair of major earthquakes, with registered magnitudes of 6.4 and 7.1, along with thousands of aftershocks, rocked the base and surrounding areas between July 4 and 5, 2019. Getting the facilities back up and running is a major priority for the Navy, given that China supports so much critical research and development work, which you can read all about in greater depth in these past War Zone articles.

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An EA-18G Growler belonging to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine, or VX-9, taxies under a sunstand at China Lake after some flight operations at the base resumed on July 10, 2019.

Navy Times first reported on the potential bill to get China Lake back up and running at full capacity on Aug. 12, 2019, after obtaining a report outlining the extent of the damages and the associated costs for repairing and replacing various buildings, which is around $2 billion. A separate Navy briefing, marked "pre-decisional" and dated August 2019, that is available online says that the total price tag to rehabilitate the facility could run more than $5 billion after taking into account the need to replace various specialized equipment and other assets, as well as other ancillary costs.

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"There was damage to a majority of the buildings and infrastructure," U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Edelson, the head of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest, or NAVFAC Southwest, told Navy Times. He added that many of the structures on the base dated back to before the 1980s, meaning they did not meet present-day "seismic standards." 

Approximately 20 percent of China Lake's buildings are now either entirely unsafe to occupy or have restrictions on their use, Edelson continued. A significant number of the base's facilities sustained so much damage that it would cost more to repair them than to just replace them completely. This is part of the reason why the potential price of making repairs at China Lake are so high.

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A map showing the approximate locations of various earthquakes and aftershocks within China Lake's boundaries on July 4 and 5, 2019.

"This [$2 billion] cost is a rough estimate for recovery of the facilities infrastructure only, and does not include specialized equipment, furniture, machine tools, telecommunications assets, consumables, or non-facilities costs," Edelson noted to Navy Times. China Lake is absolutely covered in these kinds of assets, many of which are unique to the base.

For instance, Hangar 3 at China Lake's Armitage field, which supports various aircraft and weapons programs, suffered so much damage to its hangar and attached weapon systems software activity spaces, that the base's Air Test and Evaluation Squadrons – VX-9 and VX-31 – cannot use the facility and other functions need to be relocated in the interim. The earthquakes broke bolts off support beams, shook stairwells apart, and burst water pipes, causing significant flooding. This is one of the structures that will need to be replaced outright, which will cost approximately $350 million.

Courtesy Randy Smith

Randy Smith, seen at left, along with other employees of China Lake in front of an AV-8 Harrier jump jet and Hangar 3. Smith was previously kind enough to share his personal experiences of working at the base with The War Zone.

Replacing Wing 8 of China Lake's Michelson Laboratory, which handles various testing on advanced weapon systems, account for another $270 million in projected costs. Cracks throughout this facility's foundation have put undue stress on various supporting beams, leaving it unsafe for use. 

In total, there are 23 specific facilities, or groupings of facilities, in need of replacement, construction projects that will each cost an estimated $2 million or more, according to a presentation NAVFAC Southwest gave to prospective contractors on Aug. 1, 2019. This is not including a variety of other facilities in need of replacement where the cost is under $2 million.

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Many of the facilities in need of replacement belong to the China Lake Propulsion Laboratory (CLPL), where cracks, bowed walls, and broken heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment has again made it largely impossible for personnel to conduct their work. "Loss of China Lake Propulsion Laboratories results in inability to support critical weapons" and the damage cripples "mission capability to Combustion Sciences, ordnance, propulsion, and explosives synthesis, mixing, and casting activities," the report that Navy Times obtained said.

A collection of 22 ammunition storage magazines are no longer rated as being able to contain the necessary blast pressures, making them dangerous to continue using. 

There are twelve more facilities, or groupings of facilities, that will need repairs and upgrades, each with estimated costs of $1.5 million or more. There are even more buildings that will need lesser repairs or structural upgrades, the latter of which will hopefully help prevent such extensive damage as a result of future earthquakes. For instance, "150 water valves, 180 electrical transformers, and 400 electrical poles," need repairs, according to Navy Times.

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As it stands now, the Navy doesn't expect to begin even awarding contracts to replace structures until 2020 Fiscal Year, which begins on Oct. 1, 2019. The service's goal is to have all the repairs and reconstruction finished by the end of 2020. However, NAVFAC Southwest expects to find additional problems as the repair effort gets underway, which could lead to delays. In the meantime, China Lake will be running at a very diminished capacity, which could have second-order impacts on any of a number of research and development programs.

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The earthquake damage to China Lake, and the costs to get the base back to its "mission capable" status, is just the latest natural disaster to befall U.S. military bases in recent years. The Air Force expects to spend $3 billion over the next three years to get Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida running at full capacity again after Hurricane Michael decimated it in October 2018. The Marine Corps is looking at a $3.6 billion repair bill at Camp Lejeune in the aftermath of September 2018's Hurricane Florence. Flooding at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska caused at least another $420 million in damage.

The Pentagon believes that natural disasters will only pose an increasing risk to American military bases going forward, especially when it comes to extreme weather amplified by the effects of global climate change. In January 2019, members of Congress received a U.S. military report on these issues that, among other things, said that 53 of 79 bases that are particularly critical to national security will be increasingly in danger of recurrent flooding.

For China Lake, future earthquakes remain a significant threat to its infrastructure and activities. The recent quakes may end up giving the Navy an opportunity to make important improvements so that the base can continue its vital work with minimal interruptions in the future.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com