Guam and the Rising Storm

Guam wanders in and out of the news feeds with the regularity of a failing Christmas tree

Satellite image of the Guam. IKONOS Quickbird satellite image

Satellite image of the Guam. IKONOS Quickbird satellite image

light.  Because I was there and because people I still care greatly about are there, I grab any posting about Guam tossed out from the world’s media like a lifeline.  I like Guam.  From its natural beauty and its people to its place in the historic context of humans and their wars, Guam is compelling.  I doubt that the Russian jets that periodically circle the island figuratively mooning the U.S. military[1] are there for snapshots of the magnificent and imposing cliffs.  And I don’t think that the Chinese siting of ICBMs placing Guam in the crosshairs is accidental.[2]

Once again, I feel the effect of impotent anger surging through the twists and turns in my brain awakening my desire to protect my country and the rainbow of people who I love.  The anger I sense is not directed toward Russia or China; countries do what countries do.  The anger is directed to the U.S. central government whose policy decisions a decade or more ago have come to fruition, cost a bloody fortune, and weakened the U.S.’s ability to protect itself, and I was part of the process.

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.  As one of the forward troops for a business development team, 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 new 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 boys’ 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’s business development team are incarcerated; the doors are retrofitted with cipher locks and redecorated as war rooms. Business development at this level is fun and exciting and the foreign policy decisions driving the acquisition are not even on the radar.

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.  However, not everyone in the territory likes the idea of being a U.S. citizen.  I recall a high-ranking official who seethed anger from every part of her body.  I marveled that a person who, as a child, had witnessed the Japanese decapitate her mother could hate the U.S. so much.

During the Cold War (1947-1991), the U.S. had many formal arrangements with Asian-Pacific island nations to base the U.S. military. Now, most of these islands and island nations want the U.S. military 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. And, 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.

Super typhoon Paka: Image courstey of NOAA

Super typhoon Paka: Image courstey of NOAA

Guam has a downside as a strategic asset. It is subject to typhoons and earthquakes.  During my stay on Guam, I was privileged to experience both. Super-typhoon Paka hit Guam in late December 1997. When Paka came on shore in Guam, the winds were measured at 145 miles per hour before the anemometer at Andersen AFB broke.[3] I was on the 7th floor of the hotel listening to the next building scream as it twisted in the wind.  I was feeling lucky 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 calm abruptly ceased and the other eye wall closed in. The buildings all withstood Paka’s test and communications and power were never lost.

In Paka’s aftermath the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross swooped in to ‘help’. The ever ‘helpful’ federal agencies 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 to the west used Guam as a coal stop.[4] Guam was a logistics hub for the Allies during WWII and is, on occasion, referred to as “the

07/20/70 - Richard M. Nixon, bowling at the White House. - Photo Credit AP ORG

07/20/70 – Richard M. Nixon, bowling at the White House. – Photo Credit AP ORG

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 Vietnam, Guam added 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 its important physical infrastructure declined-an expensive in counter-productive policy choice.   In 1993, the former Air Station in Agana was closed under the 1993 Base Reutilization and Closure Act (BRAC); about 1800 acres were turned over to Guam for redevelopment.  In response to a policy decision to move the military bases from Okinawa to Guam over a decade ago, Guam awakened again and the pieces implementing a refreshed Pacific foreign policy began clicking into place.

Clearly the submarine facilities are up-to-speed. In February 2014, the U.S.Topeka, a nuclear

The maneuvering watch aboard the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Topeka (SSN 754); File:US Navy 041124-N-8977L-002

The maneuvering watch aboard the Los Angeles-class attack submarine U.S.Topeka (SSN 754); File:US Navy 041124-N-8977L-002

attack submarine, became the fourth to be deployed to Guam.  It takes a decade or two from when foreign policy decisions are made and when it is fully implemented.  The wheels of the central government grind slowly.  The primary impediment to the foreign policy wheels is that both congress and the president play vital roles.  The frequent disagreements on how those roles are played and differing policy objectives can lead to long, involved, and sometimes convoluted decision matrices.  According to the Foreign Policy Association:

“…The Constitution assigns the Senate a distinctive role in the foreign policy process—to advise the President in negotiating agreements, to consent to them once they have been signed, and to approve presidential appointments, including the Secretary of State, other high officials of the State Department, ambassadors and career foreign service officers. After the Vietnam War, Congress became more involved in foreign affairs; however, many now question the branch’s effectiveness as Presidents have found ways to circumvent requirements for Congress’ approval. President Obama’s military action in Libya, which controversially sidestepped the War Power’s Resolution, is just one example….”

Once policy is defined, i.e. the 1995 decision that U.S. military was leaving Okinawa, it can take years to work out all of the details; where, who pays, landfills, cultural restoration, compensation, etc.  Early on in the implementation, the decision was made to move the military to Guam so consolidations began along with the planning in 1997.  In 2014, the military will finally make the move, but in the meantime much has changed in the world. The U.S.’s Air/Sea Battle Plan is being implemented, Australia’s role in global defense is greatly increased with the addition of a new U.S. funded over-the-horizon multiple target acquisition radar, and China is exercising its military muscle. Tensions are high and here is how the story looks today from Bill Gertz in the Washington Free Beacon:

“…U.S. intelligence agencies recently confirmed China’s development of a new intermediate-range nuclear missile (IRBM) called the Dongfeng-26C (DF-26C), U.S. officials said.

The new missile is estimated to have a range of at least 2,200 miles—enough for Chinese military forces to conduct attacks on U.S. military facilities in Guam, a major hub for the Pentagon’s shift of U.S. forces to Asia Pacific.

As part of the force posture changes, several thousand Marines now based in Okinawa will be moved to Guam as part of the Asia pivot.

In April, the Pentagon announced it is deploying one of its newest anti-missile systems, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to Guam because of growing missile threats to the U.S. island, located in the South Pacific some 1,600 miles southeast of Japan and 4,000 miles from Hawaii…”[5]

Guam is in the middle of a rising storm whether or not it is in today’s headlines.  Whether the storm is a super typhoon or a tempest in a teapot, Guam is of great strategic importance.   The problem is Guam is small and the geopolitical power game is in full-swing

Guam's Agana Bay at sunset

Guam’s Agana Bay at sunset

so I worry about the people who live there whether I know them or not.  The island is easily attacked.  Those Russian jets that buzzed the island last year were Tu-95 Bear-H bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.  China is also threatening Guam with nuclear weapons.  Of course, the backups are Australia and the Philippines.  The geniuses in Washington got out of the Philippines years ago and going back is very expensive. If North Korea, China or Russia go crazy we need Guam in play to take care of the business of keeping us free, but the price may be very high.  Hafa Adai.

For more interesting reading about Guam and its role in today’s global military strategy read Guam: U.S. Defense Deployments, a report by Shirley A. Kan, Specialist in Asian Security Affairs, at the Congressional Research Service.



[1] Fox News; February 16, 2013; Air Force confirms Russian jets circled US territory of Guam; http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/02/16/nuclear-armed-russian-jets-reportedly-circled-us-territory-guam/

[2] Want China times; 2014-03-04; DF-26C missile puts Guam within China’s reach: report; http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?cid=1101&MainCatID=&id=20140304000105

[3] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; SUPER TYPHOON PAKA’S (1997) SURFACE WINDS OVER GUAM; 17 August 1998; http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/project98/sh_proj1.html

[4] 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

[5] The Washington Free Beacon; March 3, 2014; Bill Gertz; China Fields New Intermediate-Range Nuclear Missile; http://freebeacon.com/china-fields-new-intermediate-range-nuclear-missile/

5 thoughts on “Guam and the Rising Storm

  1. Thank you for Guam and the Rising Storm! It is so factually written as no other I have seen from people who traipse through. I was definitely around during your duration here. Thank you for your recognition of the Chamorro people and their resilience to weather any storm. If you remember, you will know who I am.

    • Yes, Mr. Gutierrez, I remember you well as the governor and as a human being who came out to the park were we were serving people food. Thank you for the comments on my post, I strive to be factual and am always open should I err. The character of the Chamorro make them strong the culture gives them great depth. They were kind and open to me and provided insight on how best to serve their needs. Thank you for taking the time to read the post.

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