Infrastructure upgrades on Guam to boost services’ capabilities in Pacific
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- Multimillion-dollar upgrades to Navy and Air Force infrastructure on Guam will pave the way for the deployment of the some of the military’s most advanced ships and aircraft, as well as the relocation of thousands of U.S. Marines from Okinawa.
The upgrades will elevate the tiny Pacific island into a maritime strategic hub, a key element laid out by the Pentagon in the Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy issued in August.
Guam, which became an American territory in 1950, is prime real estate for the Defense Department because it’s the only strategic territory that the United States can claim within the time zone of Asia, said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.
“Every other contingency requires reinforcement from Hawaii, Alaska or the West Coast of the United States, or it depends on the politically precarious and expensive forward-basing in host countries” such as Japan and South Korea, Cronin said.
Guam also resides on the strategic axis of the so-called “second-island chain,” which lies outside the primary islands closest to China, such as Taiwan, Japan and the northern Philippines. That strategic location gives the U.S. “persistent engagement and presence” that translates to deterrence of North Korea, and to China’s rising power, he said.
This year saw the arrival of a fourth Los Angeles-class attack submarine and a second submarine tender to Naval Base Guam. The Navy expects deployment of a joint high-speed vessel by 2018, along with three Mark VI patrol boats, during the next couple of years.
At the heart of Guam’s transformation is the planned transfer of 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by roughly 2023.
The Navy recently cleared the regulatory hurdles to begin major projects building the Marine Corps base, or cantonment, at the Navy Computer and Telecommunications Station at Finegayan, and family housing and a live-fire training range complex on Andersen Air Force Base.
Upgrades for Marine aviation also are underway at Andersen. During a recent tour of the massive air base that covers much of the island’s north, Steven Wolborsky, director of plans, program and readiness for Andersen’s 36th Wing, laid out the numbers.
“We have two 11,000-foot concrete runways, both rebuilt within the last 10 years,” he said. “We have enough parking for more than 155 aircraft, with a robust in-ground refueling infrastructure, so we don’t have to necessarily run a lot of fuel trucks out to the flight line.
“We have the largest capacity of jet fuel in the Air Force at 66 million gallons — coupled with an equal amount down south with the Navy.”
Roughly 19 million pounds of explosives are stored on 4,400 acres, he said.
Since 2004, the air base has had continuous, six-month rotations of six B-52 bombers and 300 airmen. Fighter jets have four-month rotations, although not on a continuous basis. The region’s squadron of five Global Hawk surveillance drones is based at Andersen. More than a half-billion dollars has been budgeted since 2010 for upgrades to buildings and infrastructure supporting the airfield.
Heavy machinery is at work in an area north of the airfield, where a vast concrete apron has been laid in preparation for construction of the first of two hangars to be used by the Marine Aviation Combat Element. The site will give the Marines the capability of “hot” refueling, meaning jets can remain running as they gas up.
Workmen are also busy laying the groundwork for a hangar to lodge the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones, the first of which is expected to arrive in 2017. Wolborsky said four Tritons are expected for the squadron, which will be manned by about 50 Navy personnel during six-month deployments. The high-altitude Tritons have a range of roughly 2,300 miles, allowing them to easily reach North Korea.
Imperial Japan recognized Guam’s strategic importance as it expanded through conquest during World War II. As Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they simultaneously attacked Guam and other islands.
Guam was defended by about 400 U.S. sailors and Marines and 250 members of the local militia comprising native Chamorro, but those forces surrendered to overwhelming numbers after the second day.
U.S. commanders viewed the Mariana Islands, particularly Guam, as a linchpin in the strategy of “leapfrogging” across the Pacific to the Japanese mainland.
After American forces liberated Guam in July 1944, the island was converted into a massive supply depot to support invasions of the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and ultimately, it was expected, Japan. Thousands of B-29 bombing sorties flew out of the newly built Andersen Air Force Base on raids on the Japanese home islands.
By the Vietnam War, about 150 B-52s were amassed at Andersen for intense bombing of Hanoi. Andersen remained a strategic B-52 base until the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
“After that came what we call the infamous ‘Sleepy Hollow’ days,” Wolborsky said. He’s not fond of the pejorative, “but it is a reality that for more than a decade and a half, there wasn’t a lot of interest, activity or investment in capabilities and facilities on Guam.”
The naval air station adjoining the international airport was closed, and the Base Realignment and Closure Commission considered abandoning Andersen, Wolborsky said. Instead, Naval Base Guam and Andersen were merged into a single entity in 2009 named Joint Region Marianas.
America’s renewed focus on the Pacific in the new millennium — largely driven by growing trade with the supereconomies of China and India — led to a re-evaluation of Guam’s strategic importance.
“We’re only a few hours away from any place, whether for contingency or humanitarian assistance disaster response,” Wolborsky said, noting that Andersen’s competitive advantage in warfighting comes from long-range strike aircraft.
“The bombers deployed here now are from Minot, North Dakota,” he said. “For them to fly to Asia, do a mission and fly back — which we can do and we’ve demonstrated we can do — would be about a 35-hour mission. That stretches the limits of aircraft and aircrew. It also requires a half-dozen or more air refuelings to pull that off.
“If we forward that same bomber to Andersen, in that 35-hour period we can do that mission maybe twice, possibly even be working on it a third time with a far lower air-fueling requirement.”
Preparing for Marines
Much of the Pentagon’s maritime security strategy for the island centers on Naval Base Guam, whose main site is about 30 miles south of Andersen.
During a recent tour, Capt. Alfred “Andy” Anderson, the base’s commanding officer, displayed obvious relish in pointing out relics of World War II and the base’s newest improvements.
The airstrip used by the Japanese still sits on the base but is used only occasionally for special operations training.
The planes are faster and missile ranges are longer than decades ago, but those technological advances have not removed the strategic significance of Guam, he said.
“If, heaven forbid, we have a crisis or a fight we have to deal with in this part of the world, the sailing days to get here from the West Coast of the United States, you’re talking probably two weeks,” he said. “In most instances, the distance from Guam to, be it Korea, be it the South China Sea, you can get there in about 96 hours.”
Naval Base Guam experienced its own deterioration during the Sleepy Hollow era, but recent projects and deployments — and more to come — are bolstering its maritime posture.
At 3,752 feet, Victor Wharf is the longest in the Pacific theater, and its total renovation was completed in June after years of construction.
It has space to support an amphibious readiness group, which includes an amphibious transport dock, an amphibious assault ship and a third support vessel, he said.
“Because once the Marines are here, if there’s a crisis, we’ve got to be able to get them out of here,” Anderson said.
An adjoining wharf has been rebuilt entirely of concrete that won’t break down under punishment of heavy vehicles and those with tank-track propulsion.
The renovation has been driven largely by the anticipated relocation of Marines to Guam from Okinawa, with some of the funding linked to that move, he said. Some funding has come directly from Japan, he said.
Anderson said there are discussions about porting even more vessels at the base.
That fourth sub, the USS Topeka, joined the three other Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines earlier this year.
The joint high-speed vessel, which the Navy recently redubbed Expeditionary Fast Transport, is slated to be homeported here by 2017. It’s a catamaran-style craft intended to quickly move cargo and personnel, particularly where ports are small or ramshackle, because it can maneuver in only 15 feet of water. The vessel also includes a helicopter flight deck and a ramp for quick vehicle off-loading.
“The joint high-speed vessel is specifically designed to help the Marines and get them to their location in a quicker manner,” Anderson said.
Patrol boats on way
The state-of-art Mark VI patrol boat that is headed here is a “game-changer,” said Capt. Erich “Buzz” Diehl, commander of Task Force 75, which was stood up earlier this year and is headquartered at Camp Covington in Naval Base Guam.
With two arriving next year and a third expected in 2017, the 85-foot-long boats will have the range to reach the high seas far from islands to support major combat operations, Diehl said.
Task Force 75 is the Seventh Fleet’s newest task force, aimed at streamlining command-and-control explosive ordnance disposal, Coastal Riverine and Seabee detachments — components of which are operating in 13 to 18 countries on any given day.
The components can quickly shift to humanitarian aid and disaster relief. For example, the task force provided planners and engineer support to the III Marine Expeditionary Force when it responded to the massive earthquake in Nepal last spring.
The Mark VI, with a crew of 10 and capability to carry eight more people, harkens back to the versatility of the PT boats used throughout the Pacific island chains during World War II.
“The reason I say it’s a game-changer for us is because it really provides a capability niche for a lot of our countries that don’t, say, have large frigates or destroyers,” Diehl said. “It’s a light capability in the coastal-to-blue-water area.”
Standard arms include two remote-controlled MK-38 25 mm guns and six .50-caliber machine guns, with additional mounts to hold more machine guns and a grenade launcher.
The rear of the boat can launch and retrieve small boats and unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles. Yet the Mark VI is small enough to be transported by larger Navy ships such as amphibious transport docks.
Diehl said he expects the Mark VI will often be deployed on amphibious ships to support the myriad annual exercises in the region, such as PHIBLEX, the bilateral amphibious exercise held in the Philippines with U.S. Marines.
In general, the new boats will enhance U.S. interactions with partner nations and allies.
“That’s a big part of what we do, building relationships throughout the Indo-Asia Pacific,” Diehl said.