U.S. Buildup in Guam

Posted in United States , Asia | 04-Mar-08 | Source: Straits Times

Building up... B52s at Guam’s Andersen Air Base.

Security zone shapes up

The US military buildup in Guam will see the island joining Japan and South Korea as the third leg in America's Asia-Pacific security tripod. Defence Writer Robert Karniol is in Guam to report on developments.

BEYOND Asia's eastern horizon, some 2,400km past the Philippines, Guam is being positioned as a pivot in the realignment of US military forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

'Andersen is a strategically located forward operating base on US soil, which provides extraordinary operational flexibility for the Pacific Command and the United States president,' said Brigadier-General Douglas Owens, who heads the 36th Wing at Guam's expansive Andersen Air Force Base. The same holds true for other elements of the buildup here.

The realignment, initiated by former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was impelled by a strategic re-evaluation after the Cold War.

The aim is to make US forces more expeditionary in their posture and more flexible in their responsiveness. This involves some restructuring of forces, with 'transformation' as the driving engine.

Transformation is enabled by advances in information technologies and network-centric warfare. Innovative operational and organisational concepts are also in the blend.

In the Singapore context, transformation is the force behind current efforts to mould the third-generation Singapore Armed Forces.

US force strength in the Asia-Pacific region is centred in Japan and South Korea, which are, however, seeing manpower cuts, a consolidation of facilities and a redefining of responsibilities.

In Japan, these efforts include a closer integration of the US and Japanese forces. This lays the foundation for a combined strategy, with Australia tottering on the edge of involvement as well.

In South Korea, the intention is twofold: to hand over greater responsibility for the country's defence while ensuring it remains under the US security umbrella; and to broaden the mandate of US forces stationed there to extend beyond the Korean peninsula.

Of course, the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is not confined to these two theatres. It includes extensive bilateral and multilateral training arrangements, as well as naval ports of call and aircraft transit stops.

The Guam buildup will result in the US territory joining Japan and South Korea as the third leg in Washington's new regional security tripod.

Guam went through a similar process in the early 1990s, when US forces were dislodged from their bases in the Philippines. But defence reductions during the Clinton presidency soon saw a decline in the territory's importance.

The current buildup should see Guam's population of active duty military personnel tripling from 6,453 in 2005 to a projected 19,820 in 2014.

The US Marine Corps (USMC) will account for the bulk of this rise, with the planned relocation from Okinawa of the III Marine Expeditionary Force. This will see marine strength in Guam rise from just three to 8,000, and the number of dependents rocket from two to 9,000.

Active US Air Force (USAF) strength should expand from 1,930 to 4,560, US Navy (USN) from 4,350 to 5,600 and the US Army from 30 to 630. There are also 350 special operations personnel.

These numbers will be matched by an inflow of new capabilities. For the army, this centres on the deployment of a ballistic missile defence task force; and for the navy, the replacement of three nuclear- powered attack submarines by two cruise-missile submarines with provision to host special forces.

The air force will station a unit of RQ-4 Global Hawk long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles to replace U-2 spy planes now based in South Korea.

Several ancillary developments are also planned. These include improvements to accommodate visits by aircraft carrier battle groups and the construction at Andersen Air Force Base of 48 hardened shelters, sufficient for two full fighter squadrons.

The USAF has no combat aircraft permanently stationed in Guam. But since 2004, it has maintained a rotational presence there of six bombers, KC-135 tankers and occasional fighters. But the USMC relocation will include an air combat element.

New training facilities will also be built on Guam and nearby islands, notably in the Northern Marianas Islands. Much of this is required by the marines. But the USAF too is building an 800ha training complex to consolidate several facilities now located in Japan and South Korea.

The USAF training complex, costing US$305 million (S$426 million), is being built by the 554th Red Horse Squadron, an elite combat engineering unit relocated from South Korea. The complex will bring together all four expeditionary formations of the Pacific Air Forces.

'We'll have a working-level master plan done by this summer, and a draft environmental impact study a few months later,' said Captain Robert Lee, acting director of the Joint Guam Programme Office (JGPO)-Forward, referring to the buildup.

JGPO is charged with overseeing the huge project, with the USMC relocation alone valued at US$10.3 billion and the overall cost likely to reach US$13 billion. Further spending of up to US$3 billion will be required to upgrade the civilian infrastructure.

Japan is contributing US$6.1 billion of the funding, including US$2.8 billion in grant aid and the rest in loans or investments. This extraordinary gesture represents the first time a foreign government is helping pay for the construction of US military facilities on American soil. It reflects Tokyo's urgent interest in shifting some of the USMC presence from Okinawa.

Capt Lee, a USN military planner by trade, said the development schedule is compressed but manageable. 'The project has a very tight window of 2010-2014. But it's do-able.'

This concentrated period of construction will require a steady flow of foreign labour. Capt Lee estimates this could involve between 8,000 and 15,000 workers.

The coming influx of foreign workers is among several issues that have prompted apprehension among Guam's government and its people. Others include severe pressures on public infrastructure, land and services.

'In April 2006, the Guam governor created the Civilian-Military Task Force, whose initial mission was to look at our island as a community and at the spectrum of life issues that would be affected by the incoming military. The task force is interfacing with the military's JGPO,' Guam's Lieutenant-Governor Michael Cruz told The Straits Times.

Capt Lee's JGPO team of six, stationed in a modest suite of offices at Naval Base Guam, will eventually grow to 20. They constitute the forward element of a headquarters unit established in the US Department of the Navy in August 2006. Together, these are the tip of a iceberg.

'I can't venture to guess how many thousands of people are involved in this programme,' said Capt Lee. 'We're kind of the catalyst to get things started. But beyond our office (the task) encompasses a lot of folks at the Pentagon and elsewhere.'

Given the ambition involved, that should hardly be surprising.