Pentagon begins military buildup on Guam

With China looming as a potential adversary and thousands of Marines moving out of Japan over the next several years, the Pentagon is turning its eye to Guam, the westernmost U.S. territory and an attractive launching pad for Pacific operations.

Hit hard by base closures in the 1990s, the tiny island is once again open for military business as it prepares for the influx of thousands of additional troops -- and their families -- over the next decade.

The Navy and the Air Force are considering moving everything from unmanned aerial vehicles to an aircraft carrier to Guam -- a fact that has not escaped the territory's non-voting delegate on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Del. Madeleine Bordallo said she never misses opportunities to discuss the strategic importance of Guam with military officials, both in public hearings and private meetings. But she credits some of the gains to a tour of the island Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took two years ago -- an instructional visit that seems to have yielded big gains for Guam.

"From then on, things have been happening," Bordallo said this week.

Building up military presence on U.S. land in the Pacific might become key to military, political and economic ties to Asia, particularly as India and China emerge as world powers. "That's where the history of the world's going to be," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Guam, located 6,000 miles west of San Francisco and 3,700 miles west-southwest of the sprawling Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, lies only one time zone away from the capitals of Japan and South Korea.

Hawaii and Guam are both considered candidates for a Pacific aircraft carrier, though Abercrombie denied they were competing for the lucrative home port assignment. If a decision is made, it should be based on the "strategic interest" of the United States.

This focus on the Pacific "reflects concern with the western Pacific in general, and China in particular," said Ron O'Rourke, a naval forces analyst at Congressional Research Service.

Guam and other U.S. land in the Pacific provide one major advantage over stationing troops in friendly countries: It is territory the military does not have to negotiate access to, said Robert Work, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"All of the islands that we own over time -- if we're going to be operating in the Pacific a lot -- will tend to be very, very important," Work said.

The future of the military's presence in Guam might hinge on the Pentagon's sweeping Quadrennial Defense Review expected on Capitol Hill in February and a corresponding Navy assessment of the ships and capabilities service leaders need for their future fleet.

On Tuesday, Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the review will include a realignment of naval forces, including the potential reassignment of an aircraft carrier to somewhere in the Pacific.

But signs of change for Guam are already taking root, with the announcement late last month that the majority of the 7,000 Marines moving out of Okinawa, Japan, will relocate to Guam between 2008 and 2012.

In addition, the Navy might station as many as six additional nuclear submarines at the island, already home to three subs. And the Air Force plans to station some of its F/A-22 fighter jets on the island, as well as three massive Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, among other possible aircraft, not to mention the possibility of the aircraft carrier, which would bring with it roughly 5,000 sailors on the carrier and an associated air wing.

Should the Navy opt to place an entire carrier group -- including several surface combatants -- on the island, that number could grow to 7,000, analysts said.

With only 3,384 active-duty troops now stationed on the 212-square-mile island, the largest in Micronesia, these additions could strain Guam's infrastructure.

"Where are you going to put the housing? Where are you going to put the DoD schools? What about the hospital support?" Work asked. "There is so much in addition to just putting equipment over there."

Any investment in the island's infrastructure is likely to come with a hefty price tag, with construction costs for the Marine Corps move alone expected to cost in the billions. But Bordallo says the island is up for the growth.

"I feel that we can handle this many," Bordallo said. "I just hope we get it all," she added later.

She and her constituents will be waiting to see if the fiscal 2007 Defense budget adds significantly more to Guam's military construction accounts, probably the best indicator of the Defense Department's plans for the island.

"A lot of this will depend on how much money will be freed up for construction," Work said. "You can pretty much track this by milcon [dollars] poured onto Guam."

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