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Guam's Strategic US Importance in Pacific Growing


The U.S. military is planning to increase its operations on the U.S. Pacific Territory of Guam, and senior civilian and military officials plan to meet on the island next month to discuss the details. In this second of two reports, VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin looks at the military presence on the island, and how the local people feel about the plan to expand operations there.

The view from the control tower at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam is striking. The clear blue water of the Pacific is on three sides, with rest of the island to the south. Within its modest 550 square kilometers, Guam boasts beautiful beaches, mountains and forests. But when you ask the commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific, General Paul Hester, about Guam, he talks about the nearer part of the view from the control tower.

"You see that magnificent concrete and the infrastructure that we already have? There's much more than can be built, should we choose to build," he says.

That "magnificent concrete" is the base's two huge runways, each more than three kilometers long, and 700,000 square meters of taxiways and parking areas for aircraft, that have barely been used since the Vietnam War. The infrastructure includes typhoon-proof bunkers for fighter jets and state-of-the art maintenance facilities for strategic bombers. And although the island is small, the base has plenty of room to build more facilities for the expanded operations the military would like to bring to Guam.

Already, in recent years, the Air Force has increased its operations at the base, sending in squadrons of strategic bombers that fly long-range patrols for tens of thousands of kilometers in all directions, and can even cross the North Pole into Europe. That kind of reach, and Guam's location in the western Pacific not far north of the equator, have made the island a key element in what the U.S. military calls the Pacific Strategic Triangle.

"Strategic deterrence is always our number one job," says Colonel Bob Wheeler, commander of the Air Force operations group now on duty on Guam.

Bob Wheeler's team flies some of the world's most advanced strategic bombers, stealthy and highly capable B2s. Each aircraft can carry 80 large bombs with sophisticated guidance systems.

"Our number two is strategic influence, to influence folks in this particular region that may go down the wrong road to do the right thing," he adds. "And the third piece is, if both A and B work it's 'warheads on foreheads' per the direction of the president. And that's exactly what we do."

Although the Air Force would like to station more planes on Guam, the colonel says he already has the ability to strike anywhere in the region very quickly. Asked whether he has been focusing more lately on North Korea, following its missile tests, he says that is not necessary.

"North Korea in specific is under the same timelines as any other set of targets out there that would be," he notes. "So that doesn't require us to do any changes for it. We're ready because we never know where things are going to pop up throughout the world, and when we're going to be needed. Our job is to be ready. So that's why we come out here and we do the things that we do, so that we're closer to the fight wherever that fight may be. We don't have any specific target sets that we go after. We prepare to be able to handle anything that's given to us by the national command authorities."

Colonel Wheeler says an exercise earlier this year brought in extra planes and two aircraft carriers, demonstrating that the base's control tower, refueling operation and other capabilities can handle nearly three hundred aircraft in the area at the same time.

But that kind of operation, combined with the plan to move eight thousand U.S. marines to Guam from bases that are closing in Japan, will have an unavoidable impact on the island's 170,000 people.

"The people of Guam basically are looking forward to this. Traditionally, we are a military island," explains Madeleine Bordallo, Guam's non-voting delegate in the U.S. Congress.

She notes that the island has a long tradition not only as a base for U.S. forces, but as a place where a large percentage of the people volunteer for U.S. military service. She says some islanders have voiced opposition to the military's expansion plan, but she says they do not represent the majority.

"Basically, the majority of people are very, very pleased with this movement," she notes. "They want to see it happen. But they also want to see, are they going to improve some of our infrastructure."

Delegate Bordallo and U.S. military officials agree that Guam's roads and supplies of power and water need to be improved to support any expansion of U.S. military operations on the island. Already, some parts of the island suffer frequent power outages. Such issues are expected to be main topics of next month's meetings. The delegate says the main concern of island's people is to ensure that some of the improvements the military will pay for improve their lives, not just the lives of the troops.