Looking for Friendly Overseas Base, Pentagon Finds It Already Has One
April 7, 2004
New York Times
By JAMES BROOKE
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam - Washed by a southwesterly Pacific breeze, a line of B-52 Stratofortress bombers stand parked on the hot tarmac here, their tails stenciled with "MT," a reminder that they flew here recently from the snows of Minot, N.D.
Away for more than a decade, the B-52's, the United States' largest bombers, are back in Guam, part of a wide-ranging drive by the Pentagon to make this island, an American territory, a "power projection hub" on the edge of Asia.
"We are openly talking about putting a fighter wing there, a tanker squadron there, a Global Hawk group there," Gen. William J. Begert, Pacific Air Forces commander, said by telephone from Hawaii, almost 4,000 miles east of here. The Global Hawk is an unmanned surveillance plane.
"Guam, first of all, is U.S. territory," General Begert said. "I don't need overflight rights. I don't need landing rights. I always have permission to go to Guam. It might as well be California or New Jersey."
Next year, Washington is to decide on a new round of base closings, the first in a decade. Opening the debate, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reported to Congress on March 23 that the military had 24 percent more base capacity than it needed.
Judging by Mr. Rumsfeld's comments after his trip here last November, Guam will be a winner in the base-closing process. This volcanic, 209-square-mile island, with a population of about 160,000, fits the Pentagon's new strategy of creating "lily pads" to allow for the rapid deployment of military muscle.
"Rumsfeld keeps saying, `What about Guam? Let's build up Guam,' " said an American diplomat in Tokyo, where the defense secretary stopped after visiting here.
The Navy loss its base at Subic Bay, the Philippines, in 1992 after the Philippine Senate refused to extend the lease, and American memories of that remain sharp. The diplomat added, "We don't want to be somewhere where they don't want us, where they can throw us out."
At the naval station here, Rear Adm. Arthur J. Johnson, the commander, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had raised Guam's strategic value as the Pentagon realized the usefulness of an all-American outpost in Asia. "We invested huge amounts of money in facilities we could not use when we needed them, for example, Saudi Arabia," Admiral Johnson said. "Places where the U.S. is autonomous have come greatly to the fore."
Military officials here declined to discuss how Guam would fit into an American response to the rapid rise of China. But by moving ships and submarines to Guam, the Pentagon cuts "the tyranny of distance," trimming five days off a Pacific crossing from Hawaii, said Richard Halloran, a military analyst based in Hawaii.
"A lot of these moves are intended to deter China," Mr. Halloran, a freelance military writer, said from Honolulu, where the United States Pacific Command is based. "You are not threatening China, not in any way jeopardizing their security. On the other hand, if China becomes belligerent, you are in position to do something about it, particularly with the submarines and an aircraft carrier."
Carl Peterson, a businessman on Guam, said of Washington's low-key military buildup here: "It just sort of happens. Why disclose it? Why tell the Chinese what you are going to do before you do it?"
Later this year, a new nuclear-powered attack submarine is to arrive here, the third to make Guam its home port since 2002. While Washington debates whether a carrier should come here or to Hawaii, Guam's outer harbor is being dredged and World War II-era wharves are to be repaired for more efficient munitions handling.
["Guam's geo-strategic importance cannot be overstated," Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, the senior military officer in the Pacific, with 300,000 soldiers, sailors and marines under his command, said on March 31 in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "Both Navy and Air Force facilities will continue to figure prominently in Guam's increasing role as a power projection hub."]
Across the naval station here, new housing is being built, part of a near- doubling of military spending on the island from levels of a decade ago.
"Guam is no longer the trailer park of the Pacific," Admiral Johnson said of the new military investment. "Guam has emerged from backwater status to the center of the radar screen. This is rapidly becoming a focus for logistics, for strategic planning."
Washington's investment in Guam is most easily seen from the catwalk of Andersen's 13-story air traffic control tower.
Down below, work is under way on an air-conditioned, typhoon-resistant hangar for B-1 bombers, a huge war reserve material warehouse, a new base exchange shopping center, a new fitness and health center and a new base security center. Out of sight, new underground pipes are delivering aviation fuel directly to parking pads for jets, and the first of 60 munitions storage "igloos" are being built. To foil terrorists, workers are drilling water wells on base and burying power lines off base.
"This is by far the largest amount of construction I have seen at any Air Force base in my years in the service," said Capt. David Vandenburg, a 29-year-old Oklahoman who is chief of base development.
Captain Vandenburg's commander, Col. Paul K. White, said that when he was assigned here a year ago he was leery of Guam because of its sleepy reputation. "But this is a very exciting time to be here," he continued. "If bases are closed, the units will have to go somewhere."
Of the Pentagon's new appreciation for Guam, Mr. Peterson said: "Rumsfeld is high on Guam; he was heard asking, `How are we going to do Guam?' They are not showing their hand. But through innuendo and comments that we pick up on, everybody is suggesting there is going to be so much going on here."
While apartments, fitness centers and military support offices are not glamorous, they are essential for increasing what Capt. David M. Boone, a Navy Seabee, calls Guam's "surge capacity." In a military emergency, the island could quickly swell with planes, submarines, and ships.
"The real trick for me is to figure out how many people are going to be living here 10 years from now," said Captain Boone, who has command of military construction on Guam. "It is a moving target."
Guam has been a supply base since Spanish galleons from Manila stopped here to pick up fresh water and food before crossing the Pacific to Acapulco, Mexico. In the late 19th century, the island was a Spanish coaling station; the United States gained control in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. In recent decades, Air Force pilots dubbed Guam "the world's largest gas station."
But it is increasingly being used for military training. The Marines have rented typhoon-damaged structures for urban warfare exercises. Rural warfare training has been conducted in the southern jungles, forests so thick that one holdout Japanese soldier from World War II was captured only in 1972.
About 150 miles north of here, a small island serves as a bombing range. There is also the wide-open sea and the sky above it, with no one to complain about sonic booms.
"In Minot, the nearest bombing range is in Utah, a two-and-a-half hour flight," said Lt. Col. Robert Hyde, a 37-year-old Mississippian who commands the base's new unit of six B-52's. Referring to his training here with the Navy, Colonel Hyde said, "In North Dakota, obviously, you can't work easily with a carrier battle group."
During the Christmas 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, more than 150 B-52's flew from here. On a recent morning, bulldozers and pavers were upgrading the acres of tarmac that make Andersen comparable to a major international airport.
In this treeless landscape, even B-52's look small. In the shade of one the planes' huge, drooping wings, Master Sgt. Ralph Gillikan, a mechanic last stationed at the North Dakota base, surveyed the surrounding sea of concrete and said, "The parking here is good."