Guam not ready for Okinawa's Marines, officials say
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 28, 2012
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The U.S. and Japan might be moving forward with plans to relocate thousands of Marines off of Okinawa, but it will be years before those troops could be stationed on Guam, according to the Navy and the territorial government there.
At a minimum, the U.S. military will take about two years to decide where on Guam to build needed training ranges for the Marines, and construction work would take longer, the Navy’s Joint Guam Program Office said.
Meanwhile, big questions remain on how and when the territory’s sewage treatment facilities will be upgraded to support about 4,700 more servicemembers and a possible increase in military families.
The U.S. and Japan began hashing out a new agreement on the military realignment earlier this month in an attempt to jump start the redeployment of Okinawa Marines to Guam. The effort was held up for years because of Okinawan opposition to building a new Marine Corps air station on the island as a replacement for the Futenma air station.
Now, both countries say they will not wait for a solution before relocating Marine forces to the U.S. territory, which sits about 1,400 miles to the southeast Okinawa.
Capt. Dan Cuff, director of the Guam office, said training ranges are needed before Marines can be moved to the island — and are necessary no matter how many servicemembers the U.S. and Japan eventually decide to station there.
The Navy has just started a new environmental study to determine where to build the live-fire ranges, where the incoming Marines could practice with pistols, machine guns and grenades.
The military’s first choice to build ranges on ancestral land caused public outcry and triggered a lawsuit by citizens groups. Last year, the Navy announced it would study the project and consider other potential properties.
That study should be completed in early 2014, when the Navy will announce a final location. It is now considering land along the eastern Guam coast near the ancestral land known as Pagat or in the south where the U.S. military already has an 8,000-acre naval magazine, according to Cuff.
Once a location is chosen, the timeframe for completing the ranges will depend on what construction site preparation is needed and also the overall Marine redeployment plans being worked out now by the U.S. and Japan, Cuff said.
“At this point, I would not want to speculate how long it would be,” he said. “We do not want to build anything before it is needed.”
Senior defense officials and diplomats from the United States and Japan continued negotiations in Tokyo this week on the new agreement to reduce the U.S. forces on Okinawa and build up Marine forces on Guam. Details of the new arrangement will likely be released in the coming months, Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said during a visit to Okinawa on Monday.
Meanwhile, most of the preparatory construction work planned for Guam is on hold, including about $700 million in funding from Japan for upgrading wastewater treatment and other utilities in advance of the Marines arriving, according to Cuff. Congress froze funding for military build-up projects on the island until the U.S. military’s realignment plans can be further studied, the Department of Defense provides a master realignment plan and the Marine Corps weighs in on its ideal force structure in the region.
The Senate has said it plans to order an independent review this year of the plans to shift Marines off Okinawa, but it remains unclear when the other congressional requirements may be met.
With congressional requirements and bilateral negotiations looming, the length of time needed for Guam to get prepared to host Marines remains undecided, Cuff said.
“Putting any type of timeline or an expected date would just be inappropriate at this point,” he said.
Guam Sen. Judi Guthertz, chairwoman of the island legislature’s military build-up committee, said she believes the island could build the training facilities and upgrade the utilities within three years.
“I don’t think that would be very difficult to achieve,” Guthertz said.
In the past, the training ranges had caused controversy on the territory, but the decision to consider land on or around the existing naval magazine could avoid widespread public opposition and delays for the project, she said.
However, the Navy is also considering parcels of land on the eastern coast that are earmarked for return to Chamorro residents, who are the original inhabitants of Guam, Guthertz said.
“They are still going to have problems with respect to that part of it,” she said.