ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam — The U.S. Pacific Command is moving forward with plans to recast the posture of its military forces in the western Pacific and Asia with the new pivot point to be a robust base on the island of Guam.
“Look at a map,” said the command’s leader, Adm. William J. Fallon, as he flew toward Guam after a weeklong trek through Southeast Asia. He pointed to the relatively short distances from Guam to South Korea; the Taiwan Strait, across which China and Taiwan confront each other; and Southeast Asia, the frontier of terror in Asia.
U.S. officers often talk about the “tyranny of distance” in the Pacific Command’s area of operations, which runs from the west coast of North America to the east coast of Africa. Guam, when it is fully operational, will provide a base for land, naval and air forces closer to targets than for forces on the U.S. mainland or Hawaii. Guam was a major air base during the war in Vietnam.
A genuine advantage, Adm. Fallon said, is that “Guam is American territory.” The island does not have the political restrictions, such as those in South Korea, that could impede U.S. military moves in an emergency. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who repeatedly has taken an anti-American stance, has suggested that U.S. forces could not be deployed from his nation without his government’s approval.
In an interview on his airplane and in congressional testimony this week, the admiral emphasized the vital role that Japan would continue to play in U.S. strategy.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance remains the most important pact in the Pacific,” he said. Even so, depending on what sort of government is in power in Tokyo, political complications could arise in deploying forces elsewhere from Japan.
The disadvantage of Guam is the run-down state of the island’s infrastructure. The roads, the electrical system, the water supply, piers and airfield runways are in disrepair.
“I want that infrastructure fixed,” Adm. Fallon said. One runway at Andersen Air Force Base already has been demolished for rebuilding. Guam also is vulnerable to typhoons and should have its power lines buried, Adm. Fallon said.
Adm. Fallon said he saw the island as primarily a staging area through which troops, ships and planes would surge toward contingencies in Asia. The island’s maintenance and repair capacity would be refurbished and expanded so that, for instance, aircraft carriers could be serviced without having to return to home ports on the West Coast.
What this will cost and whether Congress will provide sufficient funds has not been determined.
About 7,000 Marines, including the headquarters of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, would go to Guam from the Japanese island of Okinawa, where friction between Marines and Okinawans has been constant. Three fast-attack submarines are based at Guam, and two more will be assigned there. Squadrons of B-1 bombers are rotated through Guam from the United States for several months at a time.
On realigning U.S. forces in Japan, American and Japanese officials have been putting the finishing touches on an agreement to be completed by the end of this month. It is to include a new U.S. Army headquarters alongside a Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force headquarters at Camp Zama, southwest of Tokyo, and a similar arrangement for air force units at Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo.
Japan has agreed that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington will replace the Kitty Hawk, driven by conventional steam turbines, in Yokosuka when it is retired in 2008.
Throughout the discussion of his vision for positioning forces in the Asia-Pacific region, Adm. Fallon emphasized “flexibility.”
“We need to have forces ready to react,” he said. “We must have built-in flexibility” to meet emergencies, including disaster relief and other humanitarian operations.
He underscored that he flew by helicopter from Clark Field north of Manila in the Philippines to the amphibious assault ship Essex at sea to thank the Marines and sailors aboard for their efforts in trying to rescue victims of the giant mudslide on the island of Leyte.
“You responded magnificently with great speed, agility, demonstrating flexibility in shifting your priority focus,” he told those assembled on the flight deck. They had started an exercise in the Philippines before taking on the relief work.
In congressional testimony, Adm. Fallon expanded on that theme: “Forward deployed forces, ready for immediate employment, send an unambiguous signal of undiminished U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific area. Agile and responsive global forces also act to deter aggression.”