Hafa Adai Crossroads of the Pacific

Hafa adai is Chamorro for ‘hello’ and the first words I heard as I stepped into the terminal at Guam International in Agana, Guam in late 1997.  I was on the island to explore local partnering potentials for a Base Operating Support (BOS) contract that was expected to be awarded sometime around the turn of the century. The 1997 study submitted to Congress to consolidate base operations and transfer about 2,300 military and civilian jobs to a private contractor was the result of a commercial activities study to compare costs between government and private sector providers. The size of the potential contract definitely had the big contractors’ attention.  The retired generals, astronauts, and high-ranking former government officials who inhabit the upper echelons of defense contractors’ ivory towers were working their political contacts in Washington, D.C. We foot soldiers were exploring the local possibilities. There is a great deal of money involved in the acquisition of one of the big BOS contracts and, once everybody teams up for the kill, the doors of each contractor team’s business development groups receive cipher locks and become war rooms. It was fun and exciting to be part of the effort and Guam’s strategic role in the U.S. military historical context fascinated me.

As the Western most territory of the United States, Guam is a vital strategic asset in the Pacific. It is located about 3,300 miles West of Hawaii, 1,500 miles east of the Philippines and 1,550 miles south of Japan. Part of the Marianas Archipelago, Guam, looks like an island but is actually the exposed top of a submerged 38,000-foot mountain, which is the union of two volcanoes. In area it is about 212 square miles or about three times the size of Washington, D.C.  Guam is a U.S. territory and the people of the island are U.S. citizens. During the Cold War (1947-1991), the U.S. had many more formal arrangements with foreign governments to base our military. Now, most of these islands and island nations want the U.S. gone. Since there are no new islands in East Asia, that leaves increasing the U.S. capability on Guam as a key step to effectively withdrawing from bases where the U.S. is no longer welcome. A brand new BOS contract in a growing military environment is a terrific opportunity for any major contractor with the ability to bankroll the acquisition and start-up. The military industrial complex had representatives nosing around Guam for years before the competition was announced and I was one of many ‘boots on the ground’. In 2000, the seven and a half year contract was finally awarded. At that time, the base contract amount was estimated at about $329 million, which beat the estimate given in the commercial activities study.

Guam has a down side as a strategic asset. It is subject to typhoons. During my stay on Guam, I got up close and personal with Super-typhoon Paka. When it hit Guam, the winds were measured at 145 miles per hour before the anemometer broke. I was on the 7th floor of the hotel listening to the next building scream as it twisted in the wind when the French doors in my room blew out. During half-time when the eye was passing over, I decided to go down to the lobby. I came close to not being able to get back into my room as the second eye wall closed in. The building all stood the test and communications and power were never lost. In the aftermath the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross swooped in to ‘help’. They consumed every available supply, vehicle, and room on the island to set up their offices and fill in their forms. In the meantime, the real help came from within. The people set up food preparation in the parks and most of us spent time volunteering with serving food, cleaning-up and rebuilding. FEMA and the Red Cross did an excellent job of filling in their forms and consuming what precious little material was left on the island, though.

Prior to WWI, ships using the great-circle route[1] to the west used Guam as a coal stop. Guam was a logistics hub for the Allies during WWII and is, on occasion, referred to as “the Supermarket of the Pacific”. Most recently, during the Cold War (1947-1991), Guam was the “Crossroads of the Pacific” because it was one of the first Polaris missile support bases, home to Air Force B-52s, and a critical Defense/State Department communications/intelligence link. During Viet Nam, Guam also became a base for the minesweepers that worked to clear Haiphong Harbor at the end of hostilities. In 1969, President Nixon pushed a doctrine self-defense for the U.S.’s Asian Allies and Guam’s role and and its important physical infrastructure declined. In 1993, the former Air Station in Agana was closed under the 1993 Base Reutilization and Closure Act (BRAC) and about 1800 acres were turned over to Guam for redevelopment.

Do we need to be in Asia? I think so. Let me count the ways.

  1. North Korea has nuclear capability and they have made certain the U.S. and the world is aware of that fact.
  2. We the People of the U.S., have turned to China to manufacture our goods. We need to be able to get those products back to us. China is not a comfortable ally; they are not our friends and would just as soon see the U.S. leave Asia entirely. Secretary of State, John Kerry, just cut a deal with China. China committed to use their influence with North Korea in exchange for the U.S. pulling back its missiles.
  3. Terrorism is here to stay. In 2002, the Bali attack killed 168 people, which brought focus on Indonesia’s terrorist cells. There are many terrorist cells in the Philippines and the U.S. no longer has bases there. Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the southern provinces of the Philippines are of concern and growing in sophistication.  They may well have or could soon have what they need to go ‘global’.
  4. Taiwan is always at risk. China would like that little country back. It would take about two weeks for a carrier strike group stationed on the West Coast, or a week from the Indian Ocean, and about the same length of time from Hawaii. If a carrier was deployed to Yokosuka, Japan or in port at Guam the transit time would be much reduced.
  5. Australia and New Zealand are two critical allies. Guam is a key base for strategic cooperation to support these outposts of western democracy in an increasingly hostile Asian world.

Somewhere between occupying 78% of the world and isolationism is the correct answer to where and how to strategically station our military forces. The Navy’s job is to keep the seas safe and open for commerce. Guam is an important component of the Navy’s capability to do its job. If North Korea or China or Russia goes crazy we need to have those boys in place to take care of the business of keeping us free. Hafa Adai.



[1] Great-circle navigation is the practice of navigating a vessel (such as a ship or aircraft) along a track that follows a great circle. A great circle track is the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a planetary body, assuming a perfect spherical model; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great-circle_navigation

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