Guam locked in billion-dollar waiting game with Congress on military move
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 3, 2014
HAGATNA, Guam — Gov. Eddie Calvo takes issue when anyone describes his native island as “out of the way.”
Although the American territory is distant from the rest of the United States — in both geography and general awareness — it’s also a four-hour commercial flight from about 1.7 billion people.
None of this is lost on U.S. military and diplomatic officials, who view basing more of the nation’s Asia-Pacific forces in Guam as both strategically viable and politically expedient.
However, most of the plan to bring 5,000 Okinawa-based Marines and their families to Guam within the next decade remains unfunded by the U.S, even though Japan is paying its share under a 2006 bilateral pact. The funding delay, spurred by congressional questions about cost and value, raises the same concern in Guam that is being voiced in other Asia-Pacific countries: Will the U.S. follow through on its commitment to make the region its top long-term strategic priority, especially with the fight against Islamic State militants suddenly ramping up in Iraq and Syria?
“If things are delayed or shrunk down, obviously there will be potential impacts short- and long-term,” Calvo told Stars and Stripes during an interview in the governor’s Adelup office. “I think it’s important also for the credibility of the federal government, not only for its strategic interest, but its credibility to its allies and to its fellow citizens on Guam.”
Guam has already spent millions of its own funds on port upgrades and infrastructure improvements with the military buildup in mind, Calvo said. Meanwhile, Japan continues to set aside $3.1 billion of the estimated $8.6 billion tab for the move from Okinawa.
The 2006 bilateral agreement originally called for 8,000 Marines and 9,000 family members to move to Guam by this year at a shared cost of $10.3 billion.
That plan would have added 79,000 extra people, including military, civilian base workers and construction laborers, to the island’s population of 160,000, according to the military’s Environmental Impact Statement. Even supporters of the buildup in principle balked at such rapid growth.
The military prepared a second impact statement with a smaller buildup projected over a longer time period. However, multiple members of the Senate Armed Services Committee remained unconvinced that the Pentagon was spending wisely.
“The Department of Defense wants to move Marines to Guam, but does not know how much military infrastructure will be needed to support the move, what the implications will be to operational responsiveness in the Pacific theater, or how much any of it will cost,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said after introducing an ultimately successful amendment to strip Guam funding from last year’s defense budget.
McCain and others called on the Pentagon to prepare a master plan for the buildup, which was submitted to Congress in August. A record of decision will be issued sometime after March 2015, at which time Congress can re-examine the move.
Calvo is optimistic they will vote to fund it, based on his discussions with to Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.
“I think [the senators] are looking at the dollars, but at least now the questions are more on the particular type of capital improvement works that need to occur, and that, to me, is a positive response from members of the Senate,” Calvo said.
The freeze on further funding hasn’t stopped the plan entirely. The military has spent $350 million on Guam with funds authorized after a 2010 record of decision, said Maj. Darren Alvarez, deputy director for the Joint Guam Program Office.
The projects include Navy wharf improvements and ramp infrastructure at Andersen Air Force Base for the Marine Corps’ air squadrons.
Both supporters and opponents of the buildup on Guam say a majority generally approves of the military move, though there is little independent, large-scale polling.
Guam’s gubernatorial and territorial senate elections will be decided Nov. 4, but while the buildup is discussed in debates and forums, it draws less attention than more immediate concerns like health care and the larger economy.
Calvo and his opponent, former governor Carl Gutierrez, each support working with the federal government to make the buildup happen in some form.
Opposition to the current plan is a mixed bag of views. Some just don’t want a military presence. More are concerned that Guam’s infrastructure, social services and environment will suffer.
“Our driving objective is to really flesh out the picture of the buildup,” said attorney Leevin Camacho, a spokesman for the civic group We Are Guahan.
The group produced a series of short videos. Two question the claims of economic gains associated with the buildup, while another criticizes the environmental impact of a planned .50 caliber weapons range.
Most of the new jobs related to the build-up will be temporary and filled by off-island construction workers, according to the group. The Pentagon’s 1,448-page impact study estimates 7,031 new jobs during peak construction in 2021, dropping off to a steady 1,438 jobs by 2028.
The buildup may bring revenue through the expanded tax base and added residents, but that may not be enough to offset the need for more firefighters, teachers, health care workers and service providers, according to the group.
“We have yet to see anything that says ‘This is how much it will cost the government of Guam,” Camacho said. “It’s almost like they don’t want to give us the cost in a cost-benefit analysis. Moving forward, we hope the dialog will take all that into account.”