Cost to relocate Marines off Okinawa a moving target
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 15, 2012
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — U.S. taxpayers will shoulder most of the cost for a planned relocation of Okinawa-based Marines, according to the agreement reached with Japan last month, but the stated $8.6 billion price tag for the move is not yet firm and does not take into account the entire project.
And, it could be years before such a move takes place.
The $8.6 billion figure is only a preliminary estimate for moving 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and is not based on any specific military construction projects on the island, Defense Department spokeswoman Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde told Stars and Stripes last week. Furthermore, the potential cost of moving thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Hawaii was not included in the estimate, she said.
The U.S. and Japan have been trying to reduce the Marine Corps presence on Okinawa for years, but the controversial effort has drawn criticism from both the U.S. Senate and the Government Accountability Office for lack of accurate accounting and planning. Last year, the GAO found that a 2006 bilateral agreement to transfer roughly 5,000 of Marines off Okinawa had been estimated at $10.27 billion by the U.S. and Japan, but the GAO determined the cost to be closer to $23.9 billion.
Under the agreement unveiled last month, 9,000 Marines are to be transferred off Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii and Australia.
The estimated $8.6 billion for the Guam move will include new Marine Corps bases, family housing and training facilities on the island. The U.S. share of the cost will be $5.8 billion — equal to $1.16 million per Marine — while Japan has agreed to pay the additional $2.8 billion, according to the Ministry of Defense.
“There are no facilities available for 5,000 Marines on Guam,” Hull-Ryde wrote in an email. “The cost of construction on Guam is relatively expensive.”
Guam already houses Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam, but new Marine Corps facilities will be needed for the additional troops. Those facilities could be built either on existing military land or privately owned land. The cost estimate released by the U.S. and Japan was calculated using the current island construction costs and some anticipated Marine Corps needs, but specific military buildup projects have not yet been hashed out, Hull-Ryde said.
The Japan ministries of defense and foreign affairs said last week that a breakdown of Japan’s $2.8 billion share of the cost has not been finalized and that discussions with the U.S. on the Guam buildup price tag and construction components are expected to continue later this year.
Even as the plan moves forward, the extent of the future Marine Corps footprint on Guam is likely to remain unknown for several years.
The Navy needs to conduct a study to determine what Marine Corps bases, housing and training areas are needed and where they will be located, said Capt. Dan Cuff, forward director of the Joint Guam Program Office, which heads the buildup effort locally.
A large-scale environmental study that took years to complete, must now be revamped because the U.S. and Japan decided to scale back the Marine Corps presence to 5,000 from an original estimate of 8,600. Cuff said the Navy anticipates completing the study in two years and making a final decision on the new basing layout in 2015.
Once the decision is released, the service can then begin negotiating the cost of construction with contractors.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Japan also have agreed to shift some Okinawa Marines to Hawaii, though neither government has released figures on how many might be relocated there.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said last month that the DOD will send 2,700 Okinawa Marines to the state. Hawaii, like Guam, is a remote Pacific island that already hosts a significant U.S. military population.
However, the cost of relocating Marines to Hawaii is still being studied by the department and is uncertain for now, Hull-Ryde said.
Marine Forces Pacific in Hawaii referred all questions about the relocation back to the DOD.
Such uncertainty about the ultimate cost to U.S. taxpayers has been fueling concern in the U.S. Senate, where top lawmakers on the Armed Services Committee recently called realignment efforts “unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable.” Funds for the project have been frozen, until DOD allays fundamental concerns over the cost and feasibility of the current plans before the projects can move forward, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said Thursday.
“It is premature to assess the accuracy of what the Defense Department describes as preliminary cost estimates for realignment actions on Guam,” Webb said in a written statement to Stars and Stripes.
Congress has given the DOD until the end of June to submit an independent study on the realignment and possible alternatives.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.
Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, get set to board the USS Germantown, on Feb. 2, 2012, in preparation for a routine patrol of the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Marines based on Okinawa reportedly would be spread out across the Pacific as part of a strategic realignment plan now being worked out with Japan
MATT ORR/STARS AND STRIPES