Work on Guam's $8.7 billion portion of Pacific realignment gaining momentum, officials say
DEDEDO, Guam — Driving north on Route 3 toward the site of the yet-to-be-built Marine Corps Base Guam, signs of construction are everywhere. Workers clearing land and signs warning of detours because of unexploded ordnance are common sights.
The U.S. Pacific island territory is undergoing an $8.7 billion metamorphosis that will see about 4,000 Okinawa-based Marines relocate here in the mid-2020s. About $3 billion of the cost is being picked by the Japanese government.
While no firm date has been set for the massive project’s completion — a fact criticized last year by the Government Accountability Office in Washington — U.S. military leaders on Guam say they’ve overcome significant challenges to keep things on track since ground was broken.
“It is clearly moving forward,” said Capt. Daniel Turner, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Marianas. “We’re in the early stages of the main base … There are a lot of very senior leaders that are, I think, pleased with where we’re going because we are showing actual progress with clearing this site, and I think it’s gaining momentum … so it’s great to see.”
Seeing shovels in the ground has also pleased officials from Japan’s Ministry of Defense, Turner said. A nearly $165 million contract — paid by the Japanese government — for site preparation and utilities was awarded last summer to Granite-Obayashi, a joint venture based in Watsonville, Calif.
Turner said workers are clearing out the jungle and disposing of World War II-era munitions ahead of nearly 60 projects. Construction on unaccompanied barracks, which will be the first piece built, is about two years away. While the barracks go up, the rest of the site will be cleared and prepped.
There is also steady progress being made on a $28.5 million contract for power upgrades for the new base. That work is expected to be completed in 2020.
Okinawa issues The Marine Corps’ Asia-Pacific realignment was born out of massive protests after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by two Marines and a sailor. Locals demanded the closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma due to safety concerns in a densely packed urban area and sought a smaller U.S. military footprint on the southern island prefecture.
The prefecture is home to about 30,000 U.S. troops — about half of all American servicemembers based in Japan — despite having about the same land area as Tokyo.
In 2006, some locals bristled when it was decided to keep Futenma’s air operations on Okinawa by moving them to Camp Schwab on the remote northern coast.
In an attempt to appease locals, subsequent agreements promised to send an Okinawa-based KC-130 squadron to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on the Japanese mainland and move about 4,100 Marines to Guam. An additional 2,700 Okinawa-based Marines are to be sent to Hawaii, 800 to the U.S. mainland and 1,300 on a rotational basis to Australia. U.S. bases on Okinawa are also be consolidated.
Air facilities at Schwab were supposed to be completed by 2014, the GAO reported, but progress has been slowed, most notably by unsuccessful court challenges by Okinawa’s anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who died suddenly last week after a bout with pancreatic cancer.
From his hospital bed on July 27, Onaga launched one final battle with the central government, vowing to revoke permitting later this month for the base’s new runway over environmental concerns. Its chances of success are seen as limited, based on previous court decisions. Landfill work for the runway is slated to begin on Aug. 17.
Active projects Realignment plans call for the Marines’ relocation to Guam to happen sometime between 2022 and 2026, said Donald Baldwin, deputy officer in charge for Marine Corps Activity Guam.
The ground-combat element, the logistics-combat element and much of the command-and-control operations will be at the new Marine base at Finegayan.
The aviation-combat element, along with its command and control and logistics support, will be at facilities being built at Andersen Air Force Base’s north ramp, which hosts Marine and naval aviation.
Training ranges are also planned for Tinian and Pagan islands in the Marianas, but those projects have been delayed by local opposition over cultural and enviornmental concerns, the GAO reported.
About $500 million worth of projects have been completed on Guam, Turner said. The biggest so far are at Andersen’s north ramp.
A $50 million contract paid for by the Japanese prepared the site, which now hosts a $23 million parking apron for Marine aircraft, along with a $55 million aviation maintenance hangar — one of two planned.
The first is designed for the MV-22 Osprey helicopter-plane hybrid, while the second, which has been awarded but not yet begun, will be compatible with several types of aircraft, including the F-35 joint strike fighter.
There is also a new north gate at Andersen for direct access to the Marine facilities from Route 9.
“There are a lot of active projects at the north ramp,” Turner said.
A massive utility and site-improvement project — including water, sewer, power, steam, compressed air and oily waste infrastructure — has also been completed at Apra Harbor. The facilities will support Marine embarkation and debarkation from Navy vessels. That construction was paid for by the Japanese through a $97 million contract.
A Marine wing support squadron facility at Andersen is almost finished, as are ground-support element shops.
Turner said the Defense Department is also funding off-base projects to improve the lives of Guamanians. About $50 million went into the island’s commercial port, and more than $125 million is planned for wastewater treatment upgrades.
There also have been road projects between Naval Base Guam and the northern part of the island: $30.6 million for sewer interceptor repairs along Route 9; and $3.7 million for expanded monitoring of the aquifer.
In addition, they recently held a site dedication for a Defense Department-funded repository that will house cultural artifacts discovered on the island. About 5,000 endangered orchids have been relocated from construction sites and there are plans to restore 1,000 acres of forest on Guam, free from invasive species.
“We do have a fair amount in the rearview mirror … but there’s still a lot more to come,” Turner said.
‘It’s really happening’ The next substantial projects will be a multipurpose machine-gun range at Northwest Field and a residential neighborhood for Military Operations on Urban Terrain, or MOUT, training hosted at Andersen South Training Complex, Turner said.
Construction on the known distance ranges and live-fire training range complex has just begun. The $78 million project — scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2020 — will include four ranges and some support facilities.
The MOUT facility is one of several training areas being built at Andersen South Training Complex, according to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Marianas. Others include a driver and convoy course, hand-grenade range, shoot house and breacher facility, as well as range-support facilities and telecommunications. That contract is expected to be awarded in January, Turner said, with completion in 2021.
“The facilities are going to be state of the art,” said Baldwin, the deputy officer in charge for Marine Corps Activity Guam. “They’re going to be configurable … it’s going to be a very modern facility.”
At Naval Base Guam, an $18 million waterfront headquarters is expected to be completed next year and a $56.7 million medical and dental clinic by 2020. A water well area at Northwest Field is also in the works to meet the increased water demand.
Military officials said their greatest hurdles appear to be behind them. They listened to the people of Guam and agreed to a more gradual development schedule — one that was more sensitive to environmental and cultural concerns.
They are also starting to see relief in the form of more temporary workers. A new interpretation of labor policies threatened to derail the realignment in 2016 when fewer H-2B visa approvals put a strain on Guam’s local skilled labor force. Gov. Eddie Calvo threatened to pull his support as a result.
Turner said that 130 additional skilled foreign tradesmen have been approved and are on island, though only 45 were working onsite. The rest were awaiting security clearances, but are able to help with pre-fabrication work outside the fence line.
Baldwin said that, according to local surveys, about 80 percent of Guamanians support the relocation of Marines to Guam. The plan of record is set, though minor changes could occur according to a number of variables.
“The messaging has been very positive here locally, so I think that’s the nice takeaway here,” he said. “Guam is very pro-military … if you go to north ramp on Andersen and you look at that, you’ll say, ‘Wow, it’s really happening.’”