HONOLULU — The U.S. Air Force is surging ahead with plans to revitalize its bases on Guam from which to project power into the skies over the western Pacific and the islands and continent of Asia.
Bombers are already stationed regularly at Andersen Air Force Base on rotation from the United States, as are aerial tankers essential to long-range operations. A wing of 48 fighters is on the way. Perhaps most critical will be unmanned surveillance and intelligence aircraft known as Global Hawks, which can remain on station for 24 hours at a range of more than 1,900 km from base.
Reconstruction of runways from which bombing runs were flown over Vietnam 35 years ago has started. A new hangar has been built and more are on the drawing board. They will be typhoon-proof so that aircraft need not be flown out to escape the storms to which Guam is exposed.
Housing for air and base crews and support facilities must be built. Altogether, says Gen. Paul Hester, who commands the Pacific Air Forces from its headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, executing Air Force plans alone will cost “well over $2 billion.”
The Marine Corps, under a new U.S.-Japan agreement, will move 8,000 Marines, including the III Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters and a brigade of combat troops, from Okinawa to Guam. The Navy has based three attack submarines at Guam and is planning to send two more, but repair and maintenance facilities must be refurbished.
To support this military buildup, Guam’s electrical grid, its roads, and water and sewage systems need to be refurbished after years of neglect. Schools must be expanded. The bill for these plans will probably come close to $10 billion over 10 years.
Guam has become a focus for U.S. military planners for three reasons:
* American control. Guam is U.S. territory so the forces don’t need permission from a foreign government to go into action. Nationalistic pressures drove U.S. forces from the Philippines in 1992. South Korea says it would restrict U.S. forces seeking to deploy from there. Even Japan, considered a solid ally, must take into account local political pressures that may affect U.S. deployments.
* “Backfilling.” As ground troops from South Korea, Japan, Alaska and Hawaii, and aircraft carriers, surface warships and submarines have deployed to Iraq, other forces, particularly warplanes, have been realigned in the Pacific to maintain deterrence against North Korea and China.
* “Tyranny of distance.” Bases in Guam will put air power within striking range of targets in North Korea, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
Guam was acquired from Spain in 1898 after the Spanish-American war. The island was captured by Japan early in World War II then retaken in 1944. In the Vietnam War, Andersen was a huge base for B-52 bombers attacking North Vietnam in 14-hour flights during which American aviators flew into the fiercest anti-aircraft fire since World War II.
Some of those same B-52s, modernized with advanced sensors and armed with missiles that can be fired many miles from targets, are rotating through Guam, as are B-1 and B-2 bombers.
Despite its age, “the B-52 is a great truck,” Gen. Hester said, adding that a wing of 48 F-15 fighters and their replacements, F-22 Raptors, will deploy to Guam on similar rotations.
Three of the Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, which look like small, blind Boeing 747 passenger planes, will be based at Andersen, with three more coming later. The Global Hawk, packed with radar, optical and infrared sensors, flies at 21,000 meters and can cover 104,000 sq. km in 24 hours, relaying its findings quickly to operational commanders.
Beyond acquiring intelligence on troop and weapon movements, Hester said, Global Hawks will be able to track terrorists such as those infiltrating Indonesian and Malaysian island chains after being trained in the southern Philippines.
Further, the reconnaissance aircraft could track ships in a maritime security regime in a U.S. effort to encourage Asian nations to account for merchant ships just as they track nearly every airplane. The objective is to detect illicit drug smugglers, dealers in human trafficking, pirates and terrorists.
“We must have the ability,” Hester said of the ships, “to know who you are, where you are going, and what cargo you’re carrying.”
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