Navy Sec. tours China Lake

‘We will recover, heal, be stronger than ever’

Navy Sec. tours China LakeDuring a press briefing following a whirlwind tour of China Lake on Sunday, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer renewed his commitment to rebuilding the local base following damages from 7.1 and 6.4 earthquakes in July.

“China Lake is unique — both to the Navy and to the Department of Defense,” he said. While he acknowledged some challenges in the process, including balancing the need for haste with the demand for quality, he expressed his confidence that “we will recover, heal and be stronger than ever.”

Although the unique contributions at China Lake have attracted numerous top-ranking Navy, DOD and government officials in recent years, Spenser’s visit is believed to be the first from someone in his role since SecNav John Lehman — who visited numerous times during his tenure from 1981-87.

Although this was Spencer’s first visit since 1980, he said he came through here during his service as an aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1975-81.

“We were honored to host Secretary Spencer for a short but productive visit,” said Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Executive Director Joan Johnson, who helped host the weekend tour.

“We were able to show him some of our unique expertise and infrastructure that make China Lake so strategically important to our national defense,” she said. “I’m confident he left with a better understanding of the earthquake damage here and the knowledge that we are moving forward with a sense of urgency to mitigate warfighting impacts.”

Spencer’s comments during the press briefing echoed those made by one of his deputies, Vice Adm. Mike Moran, who gave the keynote speech at the California Contracting, Acquisition, Procurement Expo earlier this month, when he stressed the importance of the government’s partnership with industry.

“We are looking closely at how we have done business in the past and asking, ‘How can we do business in the future in the best manner possible?’” said Spencer.

“We are asking people to think outside the box.”

Personnel at China Lake were highlights of the tour for the visiting secretary. “You know, a bunker is just a bunker. The civilians here have done an absolutely spectacular job.”

On Aug. 23, Navy Facilities Engineering Command Southwest released an estimate that the cost of repairs would be upward of $5 billion.

At that time, the question reportedly arose in higher quarters of whether it would be feasible to move certain operations, rather than make China Lake whole again. Moran noted during his recent address that there are some operations that cannot be moved.

Scott O’Neil, a former executive director of NAWCWD who now serves as director of the IWV Economic Development Corp., noted that the 1.2 million acres of land ranges, diverse geography, clear skies, remote location — all under the largest contiguous restricted airspace in the country — are just a few of the reasons the work cannot be moved.

“Some of the assets that were damaged cannot be picked up and moved,” said O’Neil. “China Lake plays a critical and unique role in national security, and much of what happens here can only be done here.”

He said that he believes a benefit of Spencer’s visit to have been not just getting a first-hand look at the damage, but also “getting his boots on the ground and getting a demonstration of what China Lake is about.”

O’Neil said that the sensitive nature of the work at China Lake means that most people in the Washington beltway don’t have any idea what goes on here. “The most common quote I heard from our senior-level visitors after a tour was, ‘Wow — I had no idea all this was here.’”

While China Lake officials have played critical roles in the process of objectively assessing and reporting damages, O’Neil is one of many off-base advocates who have tried to build awareness of China Lake’s unique assets and capabilities.

“One of the problems we always have is that we are unknown, unrecognized at top levels,” said David Janiec, executive director of the China Lake Alliance. “The primary role of CLA is to educate and advocate to our elected officials and others the value of China Lake.”

Following the earthquake damage, CLA and EDC joined with elected officials to highlight the importance of bringing China Lake back to full mission capability.

“China Lake is the Navy’s premier research, development, test and evaluation facility, and Navy Secretary Spencer’s visit to the base underscores its prominence within our Department of Defense,” said House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been in contact with DOD, SECNAV and other officials to expedite recovery efforts.

“The hardworking men and women of Ridgecrest provide unparalleled contributions to our military’s weapons and technology development, and it is in our country’s best interest that the base returns to full operational status as quickly as possible.”

In the absence of a budget, the exact allocations, as well as the timeline for some repairs, are as yet unknown. Details will be reported as they become publicly available.

Pictured: Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, center, tours China Lake with Rear Adm. Scott Dillon (NAWCWD commander), Capt. Paul Dale (NAWS commanding officer) and Joan Johnson (NAWCWD executive director). — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2019-11-22