Thu, Apr 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

US military spreads its wings in Asia

The Pacific Ocean island of Guam is being built up to counter threats from China and extend the US' influence in the region


A crew chief inspects a warning light inside the landing gear of his B-52 bomber in Guam.


Washed by a southwesterly Pacific breeze, a line of B-52 Stratofortress bombers stand parked on the hot tarmac here, their tails stenciled with "MT," a reminder that they flew here recently from the snows of Minot, North Dakota.

Away for more than a decade, the B-52s, the US' largest bombers, are back in Guam, part of a wide-ranging drive by the Pentagon to make this island, a US territory, a "power projection hub" on the edge of Asia.

"We are openly talking about putting a fighter wing there, a tanker squadron there, a Global Hawk group there," General William Begert, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said by telephone from Hawaii, almost 4,000 miles (6,437km) east of here. The Global Hawk is an unmanned surveillance plane.

"Guam, first of all, is US territory," Begert said. "I don't need overflight rights. I don't need landing rights. I always have permission to go to Guam. It might as well be California or New Jersey."

Next year, Washington is to decide on a new round of base closings, the first in a decade. Opening the debate, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reported to the US Congress on March 23 that the military had 24 percent more base capacity than it needed.

Judging by Rumsfeld's comments after his trip here last November, Guam will be a winner in the base-closing process. This volcanic island fits the Pentagon's new strategy of creating "lily pads" to allow for rapid deployment of military muscle.

"Rumsfeld keeps saying, `What about Guam? Let's build up Guam,"' said a US diplomat in Tokyo, where the defense secretary stopped after visiting here. American memories are still sharp of the Navy's loss of a base at Subic Bay, the Philippines, in 1992 after the Philippine Senate refused to extend the lease. The diplomat added, "We don't want to be somewhere where they don't want us, where they can throw us out."

At US Naval Forces Marianias, the naval station here, Rear Admiral Arthur Johnson, the commander, said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had raised Guam's strategic value as the Pentagon realized the usefulness of an all-American outpost in Asia.

US interests

"We invested huge amounts of money in facilities we could not use when we needed them, for example Saudi Arabia," Johnson. "Places where the US is autonomous have come greatly to the fore."

Military officials here decline to discuss how Guam would fit into a US response to the rapid rise of China. But by moving ships and submarines to Guam, the Pentagon cuts "the tyranny of distance," trimming five days off a Pacific crossing from Hawaii, said Richard Halloran, a military analyst based in Hawaii.

"A lot of these moves are intended to deter China," Halloran, a freelance military writer, said from Honolulu, where the US Pacific Command is based. "You are not threatening China, not in any way jeopardizing their security. On the other hand, if China becomes belligerent, you are in position to do something about it, particularly with the submarines and an aircraft carrier."

Carl Peterson, a businessman on Guam, said of Washington's low-key military buildup on Guam: "It just sort of happens. Why disclose it? Why tell the Chinese what you are going to do before you do it?"

Later this year, a new nuclear-powered attack submarine is to arrive here, the third to make Guam its home port since 2002. While Washington debates whether an aircraft carrier should come here or to Hawaii, Guam's outer harbor is being dredged and World War II-era wharves are to be repaired for more efficient munitions handling.

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