Looking to 2014

The future of the US-Japan alliance increasingly rests on Guam, a 209 square-mile island 1500 miles from Tokyo. The intricately arranged realignment process that envisions the relocation of roughly 8,000 Marines (and their dependents) from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 depends on both governments funding and executing major construction projects in Okinawa and Guam in a timely manner.

However, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on 1 May (available for download here), Brian Lepore, director for defense capabilities and management at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised serious questions about whether Guam will be ready for the 2014 target.

The problem, Mr. Lepore noted, is that the Defense Department and the US military have not moved past the initial planning stages.

“DOD has established a framework for the military buildup on Guam; yet, many key decisions must still be made, such as the final size of the military population, which units will be stationed there, and what military facilities will be required…the exact size and makeup of the forces to move to Guam and the housing, operational, quality of life, and service support infrastructure required are not yet fully known.”

Despite these unanswered questions, DOD is preparing a budget request for FY2010 that will provide for the first phase of construction on Guam. And the government of Guam and its representatives in Washington are still crying out for federal assistance for expanding Guam’s infrastructure to handle the influx of US military personnel and their dependents. To this end, Madeleine Bardallo, the territory’s congresswoman, introduced the Joint Guam Projects Oversight Act in April, calling for the creation of a “Guam Defense Policy Review Initiative Account” at the Treasury that will fund off-base construction and including a clause calling for a memorandum of understanding between the DOD and the government of Guam on federal assistance. (Also see Congresswoman Bardallo’s remarks on 7 May introducing the bill.)

Mr. Lepore goes on to outline the realignment process, explaining the various actors involved in the process, the division of labor among them, potential obstacles. He notes that a particular concern is the environmental impact assessment for Guam, not due until 2010, which could significantly impact the shape of the US presence in Guam (and thus the realignment process as a whole). He further notes that the Marine Corps has yet to determine the best mix of forces to base on Guam. Beyond these unanswered questions, the GAO noted potential funding shortfalls (DOD’s estimates leave out significant elements of the process) and operational shortcomings on Guam (including the inadequacy of training facilities).

In short, it is reasonable to ask whether Guam will be ready to host the USMC’s Okinawa refugees in 2014 (plus a year or two) — and if not, what’s plan B?

It is imperative that the US consolidate and shrink its military presence in Japan, without which Japan will continue to underperform as an alliance partner, threatening the survival of the alliance. With US forces in Guam, they will be five days by sea to Korea instead of the 1.5 days from Okinawa; they will be five hours by air to Korea instead of two. Japan will have to assess and improve its capabilities to respond to regional contingencies, something that the US has heretofore done on Tokyo’s behalf; for my part, I don’t doubt that the Japanese government is capable of adjusting to the post-realignment environment. But unless the realignment proceeds as planned, the Ministry of Finance and other opponents (for one reason or another) of more robust Japanese defense capabilities will undermine efforts to plan for the Guam gap.

Arguably what’s needed is executive initiative, if not from the president, then from the secretary of defense. Neither will be forthcoming before January 2009. But the next administration will inherit this mess. And it should make a point of cutting through the intra- and inter-governmental disputes, guarantee funding for expanding Guam’s infrastructure, moving the planning process up the ladder to the secretary of defense, and, as I’ve argued before, removing the Japanese government from the Guam side of the process entirely. The construction on Guam is messy enough without introducing Japanese money (and Japanese oversight) into the process.

2014 may seem like it’s far away, but without immediate and sustained involvement by the highest levels of the US government, 2014 may pass with the 8,000 Marines of the III MEF still sitting on Okinawa.

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