Fortress Guam Gets More Crowded

F-15E Strike Eagles taxiing at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam

When in 2006 the United States and Japan agreed to move 8,000 US Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 they might not have fully understood how big a job that could be. Only the political imperative to reduce the American military “footprint” on Okinawa was paramount.

Okinawa has been a garrison island for the U.S. since the end of World War II. About half of the US military personnel in Japan and 70 percent of the land dedicated to military uses are concentrated on the small southern island, cheek by jowl with the Okinawan people. Certainly the natives have long been restless, tired of the constant aircraft noise, the heavy traffic and the occasional misbehavior of the young American troops on Okinawa. Both Tokyo and Washington agree that unless these concerns are assuaged, it could endanger the entire alliance. Guam, the US figures, is the answer.

Earlier this month opposition parties wrested control of the prefectural assembly from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The election is thought to have turned more on national issues, such as the health care system for the aged on which the opposition-controlled upper house censured the Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, not bases per se. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) saw its numbers in the Okinawan legislature increase, and it seems likely that it will be happy to play anti-base sentiment to the hilt in its determined quest to push the LDP out of power at the national level.

However, it is questionable whether Guam, already a bristling US stronghold that is only 48 kilometers long and 19 km wide at its widest point, can handle the new troops. The US military already occupies nearly 30 percent of the island. Successive reports by the General Accounting Office (GAO) the investigative arm of Congress -- the latest one produced in May, have seriously questioned whether the US can meet the agreed deadline of moving the Marines.

“It is ambitious and optimistic considering the possibility that the [required] environmental impact statement could be delayed, the complexities of moving thousands of Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam and the need to obtain sufficient funding from the governments of the United States and Japan to support the Marines Corps,” Brian J. Lapore, director of defense capabilities and management for the GAO, told the Congress.

Indeed, the Congress will be asked to begin appropriating part of the estimated US$13 billion cost for military expansion on Guam in 2010 even before the assessment is completed, which some consider unwise, but not all that unusual in base alignments in other areas such as Europe and the continental US.

In outline, Okinawa and Guam look fairly similar, except that Guam is only about half as large as Okinawa. But Okinawa boasts a much higher population, 1.2 million people on 463 square miles compared with Guam’s 171,000 people, more than half of them native Chamorro islanders, on 206 sq miles. Guam’s advantage for the US military is that it is a long way from anywhere, occupying the bottom end of the Mariana island chain

Guam’s already hefty military presence includes Anderson Air Force Base at the northern tip, where, since 2004, the Air Force has been rotating B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers from US bases. The Apra harbor naval base services submarines and supply vessels. In all, about 14,000 servicemen and dependents make the island home.

But the military buildup on Guam goes beyond the 8,000 Marines now on Okinawa and their 9,000 dependents. The US is determined to make Guam into a strategic hub, underscoring both the importance of the region and the desire to project power from U.S. territory rather than foreign bases. Emphasizing the importance that Guam holds for America’s Pacific strategy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made it his first stop on his recent tour of Asia.

The Navy plans to expand its berthing facilities to support a transient nuclear aircraft carrier, plus other surface combatants and high speed transports. The air force wants to develop a global intelligence, surveillance and unmanned reconnaissance strike hub at Anderson using the Global Hawk surveillance aircraft.

The army envisions basing a ballistic missile defense task force on Guam. Additional Marines may be moved there from bases in Hawaii and the mainland U.S., especially as Washington wants to expand the Marine Corps by 25,000 men, and some may be based there.

Additional amphibious shipping capability and airlift capability is necessary as the forces will be stationed at a greater distance from potential conflicts. For example, it takes with five hours from to fly to Korea from Guam but just two hours to fly from Okinawa.

In all, the active-duty and dependent presence on the island is expected to leap from 14,000 to nearly 40,000, effectively increasing the island’s population by 23%. It is as if Hong Kong were suddenly asked to taken in an additional 1.6 million people.

The GAO outlines in considerable detail Guam’s relatively weak civilian infrastructure, which cannot support such a massive influx without considerable help. The military buildup alone would require that the commercial port double its current capacity simply to accommodate construction materials that need to be imported.

“Guam’s highways may not be able to bear the increase in traffic associated with a military buildup, and its electrical system may not be adequate to deliver the additional energy needed. Its water and waste water treatment systems are already near capacity, and its solid waste facilities face capacity and environmental challenges even without the additional burden associated with the projected increase in U.S. forces,” maintains the GAO.

There are not enough construction workers among the native population for all of the planned new civilian and military infrastructure. Plenty of labor is available in the region, of course, and President George W. Bush last month signed into law an amendment to the immigration law to permit more foreign labor into Guam on five-year permits over and above current limits.

It is estimated that the military construction, barracks, headquarters, warehouses, training facilities to support the influx will cost $13 billion. Of that amount the Japanese government has agreed to pay about $6 billion, a little less than half as an outright donation and the rest as an investment for which it expects to be repaid (such as through housing rentals).

That assumes that the LDP-Komeito coalition remains in power and is not replaced in the next year or so by a DPJ or DPJ-led coalition government, which may balk at the expenditures. The Fukuda government’s popularity is low (though recovering slightly), and the DJP is pushing strenuously for a general election.

Earlier this year the DJP had a lot of fun criticizing the “sympathy budget”, which Japan uses to underwrite much of the expense of maintaining American bases in Japan, complaining Japanese have to pay to maintain golf courses for the Americans and their dependents. So it is possible that 2014 will roll around with the 8,000 marines still on Okinawa.