A common myth ingrained in Hawaiʻi’s public discourse is the benefit—even necessity—of the United States military as an economic crutch for our island state. Lawmakers, business owners and working-class citizens alike repeat this mantra, yet the direct and indirect costs accrued by U.S. military activity and its presence rarely receive much scrutiny. In any relationship there must be a give and take. But when one side consistently takes more than it gives, the relationship begins to deteriorate.
Overseas U.S. military bases are certainly not immune to criticism. Okinawans and South Koreans have protested U.S. bases in their countries after numerous incidents of rape and crime perpetrated by U.S. servicemen on citizens were brought to light. Filipinos have protested the presence of bases which were used to stage U.S. invasions of other countries, and took to the streets after discovering that toxic waste was being dumped from a U.S. base into Subic Bay. Chamorros express an array of discontents, among which is economic coercion to join the U.S. military.
Here in Hawaiʻi, we face many of the same challenges in living side-by-side with the military. Despite this, the mantra of military dependence continues to rest on the lips of many here in the islands.
Admittedly, the U.S. military can be an attractive option for many seeking stable employment, and the prospect of general economic stimulus for (mostly) Oʻahu’s local economy is alluring. The commonly-referenced 1997 study by the RAND Corporation (a think-tank founded by a U.S. General) states the military is a major economic generator, accounting for roughly 101,000 civilian and military jobs, or 16 percent of Hawaiʻi’s total labor force. In 2014, the U.S. National Budget allocated $2.4 billion to acquire materials and services in the islands, a portion of which is sourced from local contractors.
Many small, Pacific economies are dependent on the U.S. military presence and look forward each fiscal year for the budget bump from localized military activity. Out of understandable concern over providing for their families, residents in these island nations often prefer the status quo to what would surely be a rocky transition away from military dependence, involving the collection of reparations and the growing (or re-introduction) of alternative, domestic industries.
But, while removing a crutch from an injured leg seems crippling, it is a necessary step in physical therapy before recuperation and self-dependence. Before full recovery can occur, the patient must fully understand the scope of the damages and injuries. The following is a starting point for a new discussion centered on moving forward with economic independence from the military, and growth of new, local industries.
The myth of economic benefit
The 1997 RAND study is often cited as the primary source proving the immense benefit to Hawaiʻi’s economy the U.S. military creates. It lays the groundwork for the arguments about investment, local contracts and employment that have formed the current mythos of an absolute need for the U.S. military here.
However, there are portions of the text that go unmentioned by military proponents. One is its own admission that it operates under the assumption that U.S. military personnel live in the same places, eat the same food, shop at the same places and consume in the same ways as local people. Living in subsidized housing, provided with government healthcare and given military commissaries and exchanges from which to buy food and clothing, military personnel are, in fact, highly isolated from Hawaiʻi’s local economy. They are also exempt from paying state income taxes.
Another admission in the study is that the relation between the military and employment changes in Hawaiʻi is still unclear. The study admits that contracts for supplies do not go entirely to local sources; many companies contracted in Hawaiʻi are actually from the mainland, and those that are Hawaiʻi-based often source their materials from the mainland as well. Military housing, for example, is managed by two large U.S. development companies. The study estimates that over a quarter of (already subsidized) military rent dollars leave Hawaiʻi’s economy.
Pearl Harbor Naval Complex and Hickam Air Force Base sit in the basin between Pearl City, Kapolei and Honolulu proper, a prime area for the city’s development. Military land, however, whether used or unused, is often not open for any type of private development or use that would benefit Hawaiʻi’s economy.
The base’s size and location create ramifications for future construction and does not benefit Oʻahu’s economy, long-term. Rather, it forces our economy to adapt to and increase dependence on the military’s presence: development now gentrifies and duplicates existing communities. At the same time, reservation of centrally located military land increases the problem of urban sprawl, forcing housing developments further and further into the countryside.
Developments such as Schofield Barracks and the housing in Pearl Harbor provide subsidized housing to thousands of military personnel from the U.S. In 2026, with the planned closure of U.S. military bases in Okinawa, close to 3,000 marines and their families will move to Hawaiʻi and require additional housing and facilities. While Hawaiʻi struggles with its own housing and urban development issues, the military accommodates non-residents in self-contained bases with subsidized housing developed and managed by companies outside Hawaiʻi.
Another example is Ford Island, originally considered prime real estate even in the late 1800s. The island is now a landfill upon which no construction can occur. The site was once used for fertility rituals and sugarcane cultivation, and yet this potentially massive asset for the people of Hawaiʻi is a restricted area for subsidized military housing. It is also chemically unsafe for use.
Chemical dumping and the cost to health
From World War I through the “Vietnam Conflict,” the U.S. produced and stockpiled hundreds of tons of biological and chemical weapons, much of which (thankfully) went unused. However, this unused stockpile of toxic compounds still presents serious problems for the communities in which they have been stashed.
In one incident, 16 million pounds of chemical weapons were dumped into the waters around Oʻahu. 16,000 100-pound mustard gas bombs, agent orange canisters and hydrogen cyanide canisters were placed into containers and deliberately sunk to the ocean bed as close as three miles off the coast of densely populated southern Oʻahu. In 1976, a dredge three miles off the south shore released some of these canisters that burned crew members of the dredging team. There are still around 8 tons of now-outlawed weapons in degrading containers off of Oʻahu’s southern coast.
The chemical incineration facility at Kalama Atoll (Johnston Atoll) destroyed 2,000 tons of chemical weapons over the entire course of its operation. A 1995 report estimated its operating cost to be at $2.02 billion in today’s U.S. dollars (USD). Hawaiʻi’s 8,000 tons of recorded dumping could theoretically cost a maximum $8.08 billion if a facility similar to Kalama Atoll were constructed to properly destroy these weapons.
In 2005, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) revealed concerns over Navy activity in Ka ʻAwalu o Puʻuloa (Pearl Harbor). The soil and sediments in the area tested positive for dozens of volatile compounds; 16 percent of Oʻahu’s population lives within one mile of the base. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed building restrictions on many areas, rendering them vacant lots where no agriculture or construction can occur. Most notable is the Ford Island landfill that contains toxic organic and inorganic compounds. The military base also contains acres of derelict industrial land dotted with empty buildings.
The CDC also warns against seafood from the area, noting that contaminants from the surrounding land run off into the harbor. Toxic sediments coat the bottom of the bay, following decades of military activity with no oversight until the creation of the EPA by Richard Nixon brought internal environmental regulations. There are also concerns that subterranean fuel storage units under Red Hill can affect the fresh water lens of the area.
Environmental damage from these chemicals can become major health concerns. As Board of Water Supply chief engineer Ernest Lau stated about the water supply, “once lost to contamination, you will never be able to recover it.”
Ke ʻAwalu o Puʻuloa was described in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report as having 125 times the normal concentration of cadmium and 39,500 times the normal concentration for lead. In sediment, chromium was 137 times the norm, with NOAA citing other contaminants from battery acid, mercury, chromic acid, diesel fuel, etc. Lead, chromium, PHBs and PHAs (bio-derived and biodegradable plastics) exceeded levels “at which effects are expected to occur.”
Area fish contained traces of chlordane, an internationally acknowledged “dirty dozen,” slow-degrading fertilizer. NOAA also observed that sea urchins and stony coral are found in every bay around Oʻahu, but are absent in Pearl Harbor. The report read “unknown” for environmental findings in the submarine base that houses nuclear weapons and reactors.
Weapons testing in Pōhakuloa on Hawaiʻi Island deploys a wide array of artillery types, famously including depleted uranium (DU). Made from spent nuclear fuel rods or nuclear weapons, most countries make a point to not use DU. The exceptions are the U.S. and the United Kingdom, countries that have both used the armor-piercing weapons in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
Studies on the health effects of DU are controversial and mixed, with some citing that its use only releases uranium into the air and soil immediately around the impact point. However, officials in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq contest the claim of acceptable safety as they cite increases in cancer in their respective populaces.
Others cite the accumulative effect of contamination, as the U.S. military has tested DU on Hawaiʻi Island since the ‘60s. Only in 2007 did it admit it had lied about the testing of DU weapons. The accumulative effect of over 50 years of constant DU testing has not been studied. Many also worry that the winds blowing through Pōhakuloa carry the contaminated soils to downwind population centers and agricultural breadbaskets. Aside from affecting neighboring areas, many believe the region is priceless because of its irreplaceable archaeological and cultural importance.
Hawaiʻi is one of the most heavily militarized locales in the world. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Base Structure Report discloses the existence of 161 military installations in Hawaiʻi and control of 5.7 percent of Hawaiʻi’s total land area. On the island of Oʻahu, it controls 22.4 percent of the land. The presence of the military’s installations has modified and impacted the surrounding environment.
Perhaps the most famous environmental contention against the military-industrial complex in Hawaiʻi involves Kahoʻolawe. The 29,000 acre island was seized by the U.S. military under the martial law that followed the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Up until 1990, the military continued to exercise live bomb and artillery tests.
Anger over remaining unexploded ordinances (UXOs), damage to the ecosystem and the rendering of the island completely uninhabitable forged a movement to restore Kahoʻolawe to its former health and function. But 21 years after Senator Daniel Inouye engineered a bill requiring the Navy to initiate a restoration project involving the clean up of these UXOs, the project is still only partially completed and has cost $400 million. While the $400 million is insufficient to finish the job, it provides a useful cost ratio: $13,793 per acre.
Pearl Harbor-Hickam Air Force Base and Schofield Barracks are not live-fire sites, but are two of the EPA’s Superfund Sites: areas designated as “uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.” These two sites are high on the EPA’s National Priorities List and have already seen initiatives to attempt to stem pollution and clear toxins from the sites. Many of these initiatives focus on volatile compounds in soils or leakage of underground oil storage into Oʻahu’s freshwater supply. The EPA provided a plan in the early ‘90s to address rampant oil leakage from Schofield Barracks into the water supply, estimating a clean-up cost of $227.3 million in today’s USD.
Pearl Harbor and Hickam are industrial powerhouses for the U.S. military. Nuclear submarines (either nuclear-powered or carrying nuclear weapons) are continuously stationed at Pearl Harbor. Over 100 years of industrial activity for a significant part of the world’s largest navy—with the majority of that activity taking place before the advent of environmental controls or the EPA—has modified or damaged the environment, rendering it unrecognizable from its original state. The harbor has been artificially widened, dredged and has been used as the drainage basin for decades-worth of military and industrial chemicals.
Pearl Harbor Naval Complex scored 70.82 on the EPA’s hazard ranking system, making it the most hazardous of all DOD installations. Base commanders sent a letter to the EPA questioning the score; the commanders worried it could “cause bad publicity and extra EPA requirements and oversight,” which could somehow “delay cleanup efforts.”
According to a representative from Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaiʻi, the U.S. Navy has spent $356 million on “investigation and remediation.” This does not take into account action required of the Air Force and Army. Critics of the Navy contend that the remediation and investigations are neither sufficient nor unbiased.
It is difficult to quantify the total environmental impacts a base has, but a study released by the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in 1995 highlighted nine Superfund Sites on the list of bases the DOD planned to close. The cost to close the nine sites and compensate for the years of environmental displacement was $1.4 billion in today’s USD. This figure was widely contested, even in Congress, as inadequate for offsetting decades of military presence at the nine sites.
Moreover, these sites were labs, remote storage depots, and single airstrips to be closed in one fiscal year, completely dwarfed by the impact of the second largest base in the entire U.S. Navy, Pearl Harbor. $1.4 billion to close an assemblage of airstrips and storage depots in one year is a large sum, and yet would only account for a drop in the bucket of offsetting the 35,725 acre industrial nerve center of the Navy.
Wasted opportunities in agriculture
Mākua valley training sites and Schofield Barracks now stand on former forest-land and what was once some of the most fertile farmland in Hawaiʻi. Central Oʻahu was once a productive agricultural region and the target of significant sugar cane and pineapple cultivation. When Mākua valley was confiscated by the U.S. military after WWII, farmers and ranchers who played important roles in Hawaiʻi’s economy and food supply were evicted.
As Hawaiʻi attempts to drive down costs and dependence through production of its own food, some of its most fertile areas are saturated with EPA-recognized water and soil pollutants or have expansive military settlements built upon them. The use of potentially productive agricultural assets as testing grounds or industrial complexes, not to mention the damage done to the ecology of these ahupuaʻa, is an economic issue just as much as environmental one.
Ka ʻAwalau o Puʻuloa references the eight rivers that converge at the “Puʻuloa, the long hill” to form the massive estuary known in English as Pearl Harbor. The harbor once boasted 36 large fishponds and a productive wetland; 17 percent of the 360 ponds that once fed all of Hawaiʻi in the late 1700s with 2.2 million pounds of food annually. It is widely cited that Hawaiian fishponds are environmentally-benign, have low capital costs and are on par with the productivity rates of modern aquaculture, especially valuable as Hawaiʻi’s fisheries are frequently over-fished.
Famous Heʻeia fishpond in Koʻolaupoko, Oʻahu, is mid-restoration, yet the research produced so far has greatly improved and restored knowledge and productivity of Hawaiian fishponds. This pond even generates revenue by selling fish and seaweed commercially. Modern benefits of this fishpond include gleaning invasive limu that are among the most productive, non-chemical fertilizers for agriculture. This site was once the site of an intensive study by University of Hawaiʻi’s Shidler School of Business that designed a marketing plan for this lucrative resource.
Life without the military
Other countries that have closed U.S. military bases have also created industrial resources for economic growth and independence. Subic Bay in the Philippines was once a major port for the U.S. Navy in Asia. After the government of the Philippines ended the lease with the U.S. Navy, it converted the base into what President Corazon Aquino envisions as a “Hong-Kong style free port,” industrial center, and tourism development. The Philippine government’s plan was to create a port similar to Hong Kong or Singapore to drive significant economic growth in those countries. The project is only a few years into its development, and its 2013 report announced annual revenue of $143 million.
The Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation has already called for a redevelopment of 90 acres in the Kapālama Military Reservation for a new container terminal to accommodate growth in the volume of shipping seen in Honolulu Harbor. Hawaiʻi sits on major international shipping routes between the world’s two largest economies and at a primary route between North America, East, Southeast, and South Asia; Hawaiʻi is more central than the Subic port in the Philippines. The U.S. military monopolizes the value of Pearl Harbor as a global crux, which could potentially benefit Hawaiʻi’s economy with revenue from such a free port or special economic zone, and could certainly yield above $143 million annually.
Recall the figure of the U.S. military controlling 5.7 percent of Hawaiʻi’s land, including 22.4 percent of the entire island of Oʻahu. The U.S. military acquired much of this land through (at best) legally shady maneuvers. Pearl Harbor, for example, was acquired at gun-point from King Kalākaua through the Bayonet Constitution. The U.S. military leases Pōhakuloa’s 133,000 acres from the State of Hawaiʻi government for $1 per year. Mākua Valley was acquired through the forcible eviction of Hawaiʻi residents.
The unpaid rent from many U.S. military land holdings is a substantial amount when examining actual land values and the legality (or lack-thereof) of the agreements. In 1991 the U.S. and Philippine governments negotiated a continued 10-year lease of Subic Bay for $203 million a year, making for a rate of $14,097 per acre of the port. Pearl Harbor and Hickam Airforce Base total 15,957 acres. While some of this land was acquired from private sale, the payments were well below established market value rates, while much of the land was acquired through confiscation. The U.S. military has used economically valuable Pearl Harbor for 113 years, which totals to around $25 billion using the Subic Bay ratio. This figure does not include the 133,000 acres at Pōhakuloa.
The value of the land is also an issue. Princeton University valued Hickam Airforce Base at $444 million for its 2,850 acres. Pearl Harbor and Hickam, now considered a single installation, would be worth $2.5 billion according to this ratio. The U.S. military’s control over 5.7 percent of Hawaiʻi’s total land equates to 398,763 acres. Using the Hickam-generated ratio, the U.S. military sits on roughly $62 billion worth of land here in Hawaiʻi.
The looming Pacific Pivot
As the U.S. plans to make its Pacific Pivot, militarization of Hawaiʻi means many things, one of which is increased addiction to the U.S. military as an economic crutch. The goal of a stable, self-reliant and independent economy will become ever more remote. Commonly viewed as an economic stimulus, the U.S. military does provide employment for some of the people of Hawaiʻi and creates some demand for local products and services. Yet the U.S. military sits on debts and damaged or underutilized resources, often unrecognized as greater potential economic assets for Hawaiʻi than the military itself could ever be.
The military occupies or damages billions of dollars worth of priceless cultural, agricultural, economic, industrial and liveable lands, while reaping incalculable benefits from housing its second largest Naval base, a critical missile defense system, the Pacific Command center, thousands of troops, large swaths of airspace and thousands of acres of testing grounds at the crossroads of the Pacific.
These resources are often acquired at little to no cost to the military. The people of Hawaiʻi, meanwhile, are bought out by a million dollars here and there and brief job booms. Yet, the clean-up reparations, rental back pay of lands and potential alternative uses greatly outweigh the breadcrumbs; they represent billions of dollars of continuous, independent and sustainable economic growth.
The numbers and arguments above are not a list of demands or exact figures, but a call to discussion of the true cost of housing the military here in Hawaiʻi: the costs we may not directly see, but that affect our rent prices, employment, food, cost of living, health and the futures of our children.