Where are the Marines?
The long-awaited relocation to Guam won't be a ramp-up, but a slow and steady move.
“‘What military buildup?’ I get that question a lot at events when we talk to stakeholders, senators, regulatory agencies. They ask, ‘Is this really happening?’” Major Tim Patrick said.
Patrick is the spokesman for the Marine Corps Activity Guam Public Affairs Office, which serves as a link between senior leadership, the Marines, and the public. “Yes, the Marines are coming,” is the Major’s reply.
You can’t really blame local residents for being just a little bit skeptical. It’s been many years now since the talk of a major relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam first surfaced, and the buzz sparked many in the community to begin preparing for the potential economic windfall that such a move would bring.
Except it didn’t happen. At least not right away, and it has been downsized considerably since those early, lofty projections. “The buildup has changed significantly since it was first announced over a decade ago, partly due to budget constraints in Washington, but also as a result of the input and concerns raised by our community,” explained Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo.
“Well, the original concept was 9,000 Marines over like a period of three days,” Major Patrick quipped. Those initial discussions between the governments of the United States and Japan involved slashing the number of Marines in Okinawa by almost half—from 19,000 down to 10,000—and then sending them to Guam. The negotiations were a result of growing opposition by many Okinawans to the large presence of American troops in their islands. The Tokyo government has been trying to strike a delicate balance between its citizens and its key strategic defense ally, the United States.
While the United States and Japan eventually agreed to move out the Marines, they also agreed not to send all 9,000 to Guam. Governor Eddie Calvo said, “It would’ve been the mother of all booms, and the mother of all busts.”
He continued, “They were looking at getting this thing done in a fraction of what they’re looking at now. It would’ve caused a major disruption—social, economic, environmental, you name it.” Calvo said the planned move would have cost the defense department $15 billion to $20 billion. With the change, that figure is down to $8.7 billion, with the U.S. taxpayers shouldering $5.6 billion and Japan paying the remaining $3.1 billion.
“When I saw the reassessment in 2012 and the Record of Decision in 2015, it was to be much more affordable for the government of the U.S. and the government of Japan. The way it was to unfold was to be less stressful to the social, economic, environmental, and cultural fabric of our community. So if everyone were to follow the deal as originally signed, the second agreement, the second roadmap was a much better improvement,” Calvo said.
So to be clear, there will be no so-called rapid ramp up, as many people were expecting. “By design, the movement of the Marines from Okinawa to Guam is supposed to be a slower, gradual process so it doesn’t have any negative impact. Which might have been the case with the original concept,” Major Patrick explained.
“I have been pleased that the DoD has adapted the plan to lessen the burdens on civilian infrastructure systems and provide greater mitigations for areas where the program will impact our island. Our community has been actively engaged throughout the process, and I hope this will continue. I firmly believe that the buildup will be good for Guam, and it will provide additional job opportunities and federal investments outside the fence and lead to a smaller military footprint on island,” Congresswoman Bordallo added.
Guam’s top military official, Admiral Soshana Chatfield, the commander of Joint Region Marianas, said the relocation may seem like it’s taking a long time, but she reassures that it will happen. “We’re really still in the beginning phases of it. We’re expecting to see some construction contracts being let later this year, and we’ll look forward to getting some foundational parts of the infrastructure into place,” the Admiral said.
Governor Calvo estimated that the buildup is only about 10 percent underway. “It’s gradual in nature and really minimizes any major impacts on our socio-economic or environmental status as a community,” he said.
So when will we actually see additional boots on the ground? “We’re looking at force flow beginning in mid-2024, second quarter of ‘24,” Major Patrick declared. The total number of Marines to be permanently stationed on Guam is about 1,500, along with about 1,700 dependents. There will also be another 3,500 deployed here on a more temporary basis, bringing the total number of troops to 5,000 at any given time. The remaining 4,000 Marines will be relocated to Hawaii, South Korea, and Darwin, Australia as part of a “distributive operations” plan.
Until they get here, there is a lot of construction that needs to get done. In fact, many of the projects are currently underway, and some have already been completed. It just may not be obvious to the local community that the road widening on Route 1 and 8 and the bridge improvements in Hagåtña are directly related to the Marine relocation. These are some of the Defense Access Road projects (DAR) needed to ensure that the public highways are wide enough and sturdy enough to accommodate the heavy-duty equipment the Marines use. “It’s DoD money, administered by the Federal Highway Administration. It’s for the mutual benefit of the military and civilian communities,” said Al Borja, the environmental director for Marine Activity Guam.
The first priority for the Marines was to upgrade the wharves at Naval Base Guam to handle amphibious operations. “They weren’t necessarily strong enough to get tanks, trucks, earth-moving equipment, heavy equipment that an expeditionary force may need. So they were revamped with reinforced concrete, made much thicker. That was the first development, and it was absolutely vital for bringing Marines in here,” said Major Patrick. “If you don’t have the amphibious capacity to move the Marines and their equipment around, then it would all be for naught.”
That project took place completely “inside the gates,” and so it was generally out of sight of local civilians. Another top priority, the construction of two state-of-the-art hangars on Andersen Air Force Base, was also within the military fences. The site preparation for the hangars was paid for with money from the Japanese government.
But there are other substantial projects in plain sight of Guamanians that most may also not realize are driven by the relocation. The northern wastewater treatment plant that the Guam Waterworks Authority has been planning is one. “It needed to be upgraded anyway for the purposes of civilian infrastructure, but we were essentially able to tie the need to upgrade it quicker because of the influx of Marines. So essentially you unlock that resource through the Office of Economic Adjustment. They were able to justify to Congress that, yes, this is definitely a critical need, number one, for the civilian population, but also for the incoming DoD mission. So those are the types of mutually beneficial actions that we can tie to the program that people aren’t necessarily aware of, but that’s how the money is flowing down to Guam,” Environmental Director Borja said.
He continued, “I think it’s okay for us to step back after we’ve done our part of the work, which is to convince Congress that this is really important for the Marine Corps relocation. But after that, once the funds start flowing, the actual hard work of developing a project starts to happen. I mean, I’m happy to say that that’s all on the Department of Public Works, or the Guam Waterworks Authority.”
”Over the last several years, we have made significant progress in loosening restrictions imposed by the Senate, and authorized funding for civilian infrastructure projects, such as upgrades to Guam’s civilian water and wastewater systems...that will benefit our local community,” Congresswoman Bordallo said.
But the expected increase in infrastructure improvements and other buildup-related projects is also giving rise to new economic and environmental concerns. Governor Calvo has gone so far as to publicly announce his withdrawal of support for the military buildup because of its collateral impact on the local construction industry. The Governor is clearly angered by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service’s nearly 100-percent denials of H2 visas that have seen the number of foreign workers here dwindle from more than a thousand a year ago to less than a hundred now.
Calvo said unless he sees a change in policy, “I can’t see how supporting this buildup will do any good for the people of Guam. As far as I’m concerned, any more work that’s done inside the military base will have a profound impact on Joe and Maria Cruz building a house, or a hotel chain adding a new wing, or potentially GPA or GWA moving forward on their projects as well.”
He has reached out to the USCIS, but described their response as “typical bureaucratic gobbledygook.” The Governor is working with the Attorney General on all options available, and a white paper is being researched on the impact to the local economy. “A determination will be made, whether or not we need to initiate legal action,” the Governor warned.
He is further frustrated because Guam is specifically exempt from foreign worker caps because of the military buildup. “I have certification authority of temporary workers. Guam is the only one among the states and territories.” He believes the USCIS director has overstepped his authority to certify temporary workers. “The bureaucracy of the federal government right now is embarrassingly incompetent,” the Governor said.
Admiral Chatfield is aware of the Governor’s frustrations. “The availability of labor is also a concern for me as the joint region commander in implementing the projects that we have, and it’s something that I’ll continue to work closely with the community about.” But she declined to comment on whether the defense department is using its weight to actively lobby its colleagues at homeland security to reverse the policy.
“Well, there’s a part of me that thinks that since they (the military) haven’t felt it yet here in Guam, maybe there’s not enough skin in the game. By the time they might see any impacts on their projects, I do believe it would’ve destroyed our economy,” Governor Calvo responded.
“When I have my discussions with local military officials, at this point there has been no disruption in terms of the work requirements and projects that are ongoing in the military bases. And yet outside the gate, when I discuss this with the local business community, whether it’s the contractors association, the chamber of commerce, or the realtors, there’s been a profound impact,” Calvo explained.
He is worried about a severe escalation in construction costs, and also the prioritization of major work. “Because of military projects, there’s been this cannibalization of workers from outside the gate to inside the gate,” the Governor cautioned.
Congresswoman Bordallo has been working on a congressional solution. “The H-2B visa crisis poses unique challenges in ensuring that Guam has an adequate workforce available for construction projects both on- and off-base, and I continue my work in Congress to provide legislative flexibility to reverse the near 100-percent denials of H-2B visas on Guam. The House recently passed its version of the FY18 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Agreement) that includes my provision to give USCIS flexibility to approve H-2B visa applications for the military construction and health care industries, and extend our exemption from the national caps that all states are under until 2020. The Senate Armed Services Committee included a similar provision in its defense bill, and the Trump Administration has also indicated support for solving this issue. I understand that this is one of the most pressing challenges affecting our island, and I am committed to doing what is necessary to resolve this issue,” Bordallo committed.
She continued, “As we move forward on the buildup, it is critical that we continue to present a ‘One Guam’ approach and ensure that we are speaking with one voice on matters that impact our community. Undoubtedly there will be difficulties and different points of view as this program continues to be implemented in the years ahead, but we have been successful thus far because our community and our leaders have articulated a common goal that this must be good for our civilian community, and not just DoD. I am committed to working cooperatively with our local leaders to advance our community’s concerns and issues, and I hope that we will move forward as ‘One Guam’ through this process.”
Calvo is not convinced USCIS is willing to help yet, and continues to withhold support for the relocation until a quicker resolution to the worker crisis is found. “Sooner or later there’s going to be an impact on the military if this problem is not solved. But in the meantime whatever problems are occurring with the construction industry inside the base it’ll be much more felt, based on what we’re seeing now, by the local community. And again this was all something done by the federal government. Bottom line: The federal government has broken the tenets of the programmatic agreement.”
The Marine relocation to Guam has also been generating lots of discussion in Washington of late. An exchange recently during a U.S. Senate hearing in May seemed to leave the door open for changes to the plan.
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz raised several on the U.S. Navy and Marine fiscal year 2018 budget. He told Marine Commandant General Robert Neller that he was “worried about aspects of the current plan that are going to fall short, particularly when it comes to Guam.”
For one, he said, “We know that sending Marines to Guam deepens our reliance on lift (aircraft availability) to move them around the region, and that’s lift that we do not have, and it’s possible that because of ongoing issues with the CNMI, that Marines won’t have access to a necessary training range to support a large unit level training that they need to maintain readiness.”
Schatz read from a letter from Defense Secretary James Mattis in which Mattis wrote that the Marines “are challenged to provide adequate lift support for both maritime and air to our distributive forces. We acknowledge the need to improve strategic lift capabilities and will continue to explore options to mitigate the shortfalls.”
The senator said the question of training facilities in Guam was “even more alarming.” He asked General Neller to explain the problems of lift and training now that the Marines are already in the process of spending money for infrastructure. “How can we maintain our commitment to Japan, but still do this in a smart way?” he added.
The General responded, “Senator, that’s a really complicated question. We’re still on plan to have Marines go to Guam. But the situation strategically, operationally as we’ve seen in the news recently, has changed. The capabilities of our adversaries have changed the dynamic there. Bottom line is the Marines are going to go to Guam. We’re going to reduce the number on Okinawa because that’s a political imperative, and we’ve made that agreement with the Japanese government. But the Marine Corps has always said that wherever we go we have to be able to train to maintain the readiness of the force that’s there. There are still some environmental issues, not just on Guam but in Tinian and other islands that have not been adjudicated yet, we should know later on this year, and some of the money we are spending is just on basic infrastructure because we do know there are going to be forces on Guam because we have to reposition the force to meet the political imperative. Having said that, I think Pacific Commander Admiral Harris has looked at different options at where they might, at least temporarily, base aircraft because of the evolving threat.”
Schatz continued with a question that gave the general pause. “What happens if CNMI doesn’t work?”
After several seconds, the general responded, “That would be a problem because the forces that right now are scheduled to go to Guam require that they be able to maintain at least a rudimentary level of readiness, training readiness, and I think that would cause us to have to go back and say, ‘All right, we’re going to fulfill our commitments to Japan, we want to get out of Futenma, the Japanese want us out of Futenma, we build the Futenma replacement facility.’ There are other places we could go to train, there are other options, and I think it would be appropriate at that time, if all that comes to pass, that we consider taking a look at those options.”
To which Schatz concluded, “This is a complex situation, to the extent that we’re implementing a plan that was developed over the last decade. We may need to be quicker in making adjustments to make this work for the Marine Corps and the Navy.”
Major Patrick acknowledged that the discussion and comments from the senate hearing also raised eyebrows among the Guam command. “We heard that as well, and we asked about it (with the Marine Corps headquarters). The answer we got back was a solid, ‘There is no change. We’re not accelerating or decelerating the plan,’” he said.
He continued that when it comes to training, “Guam and Tinian are completely separate. CJMT (CNMI Joint Military Training) came about from a completely different scenario. Hawaii training was reviewed, and there were deficiencies identified. That’s why Tinian and Pagan were considered. But it’s completely separate from Guam.”
Congresswoman Bordallo also sought to clarify the issue. “It is essential that we not conflate the movement of Marines to Guam with training capabilities in the Northern Marianas. This conflation muddies the water and strains relations within our communities, the Department of Defense, and our Japanese partners. The CNMI CJMT effort was devised as part of the Defense Posture Review Initiative to fill training shortfalls in the Pacific that exist, regardless of where Marines are stationed. Higher level joint training that provides the opportunity to combine units, services, and allied and partner forces will be important to build our readiness in the region, but it is not linked to the presence of Marines on Guam. To demonstrate that, the Department of Defense legally split the Relocation and CJMT into separate actions.”
She continued, “With that being said, I believe that we have made progress in addressing local concerns to proposals and I continue to work with our community partners to minimize and mitigate any impact these training facilities can have on our community. I will push for the Navy to work to ensure that we protect our natural resources and cultural sites on our island. However, providing adequate training facilities to the Marines on island and in the region is critical to ensuring an updated and responsive posture and readiness in the region.”
The training component is a critical part of what the Marines need to do on Guam, and two of the upcoming “Big Three” projects described by Major Patrick involve training: An urban training center, a live-fire training complex, and the main cantonment, or the living quarters for the troops.
Patrick believes the urban training facility that is to be located at Andersen south, will be of critical importance now and in the future. “We expect that to be the crown jewel of urban training in the region. Urban training is vital not just to the Marine Corps, but also to other DoD forces. You’ve got more than 70 percent of the world’s population along coastlines and urban areas. You really have to expect that future hot spots will be in urban locations. DoD as a whole has really begun to focus on urban training,” the Major explained.
The training facilities have already cleared the required environmental hurdles. “Notably, after nearly two years of discussions with the Department of the Navy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a favorable biological opinion that allows construction at the Finegayan Marine Cantonment Site and the Live Fire Training Range Complex at Northwest Field to move forward. It outlines critical mitigation steps the Navy and Marine Corps must take to ensure compatible development that does not adversely affect our unique wildlife and environment. We expect the first contracts for those projects to be awarded in the near future, with construction starting shortly thereafter,” Congresswoman Bordallo announced.
But it is the firing range at Andersen’s Northwest Field in particular that is drawing the most criticism from locals, who identify the area as Ritidian or Litekyan. The complex will consist of a total of five ranges “because they have to be able to operate simultaneously in order to churn through the numbers (of Marines) that we expect to be here,” said Patrick.
The Major is aware of the concerns expressed by local groups over the complex, but argued that such a facility can actually be a sound environmental alternative. “Sometimes the best way to protect an area is to put a range on it. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out. You have to have a surface danger zone (SDZ),” the Major said as he sketched a large section that radiates along and well past what would be the active range. “So if you’ve allocated a thousand acres to a range, you’re going to have only a small portion of that that’s disturbed. The rest of it you can’t do anything with. You can’t build on it. People can’t go through it. You can’t develop any of the land.” In Patrick’s example, the area that makes up the SDZ will be untouched, and thus will remain pristine.
But despite that, and even though the range is completely within the fence at Andersen Air Force Base, there is growing, organized opposition to it. A group called “Prutehi Litekyan,” whose goal is to stop the range from being built, has already begun lobbying local leaders to join them in their effort. Many are members of the “We Are Guahan” group that effectively halted the construction of a firing range in Pagat, Mangilao several years ago because it would have disturbed an ancient burial site.
The military long ago tried to head off environmental concerns with a commitment to “net neutral” development. It pledged that for every acre of native limestone forest that is developed for DoD use, it is committed to restoring an acre. The conservation areas were also to be maintained by the military in perpetuity.
The DoD, like all other federal entities, is also bound by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). “We’ve got to put in the money and the resources to make sure we’re doing this right,” Major Patrick said. The NEPA process requires agencies to assess the environmental impact of their proposed actions before decisions are made. It also provides opportunities for public review and comment.
Local government and military officials are confident that current plans for the Marine relocation will not change. “The numbers have stayed the same for quite awhile. And every indication we’ve got is that they will stay the same unless one of two things happen: There’s a change in the mission or a change in the capability,” Major Patrick said.
Congresswoman Bordallo also said any speculation about a reduction in numbers is unfounded. “In June, I spoke to Defense Secretary Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford, and they reaffirmed that the plan was moving forward as previously outlined. To revisit the bilateral agreement, especially at this stage, would cause significant complications, and could represent a backsliding on our commitments to Japan, a critical ally in the region. The dynamic strategic environment in the region requires that we maintain a robust forward presence that maximizes joint operational and training flexibility with U.S. and partner forces.”
Governor Calvo also cautioned, “You’re hearing a lot of speculation, but that’s all it is, speculation. I go back to the record of decision, because the record of decision is very clear.”
Bordallo added that the Trump Administration is supportive of the realignment and understands Guam’s strategic location in the Asia-Pacific region. She said that Defense Secretary Mattis testified before the House Armed Services Committee that Guam remains a critical component of the U.S. forward presence and ability to respond to contingencies in the region. “He also noted in his remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue that Guam is a ‘significant strategic hub for our regional operations,’” she said. “Guam provides a unique strategic capability for the region that no other U.S. installation provides.”
But the Governor proved prophetic when he declared that he couldn’t rule out that changes may occur. “I’m not saying it won’t. Things in the Korean peninsula could change things,” Calvo told The Guamanian Magazine in the period shortly before the North Korean missile threat in August.
“I don’t know what President Trump’s exact stance on this Marine realignment is, but he appears to be a very pro-military president, so you would assume that means increased spending into the defense infrastructure of the United States. You could see where he would be in-line with the major initiatives of the defense department,” Calvo said.
Congresswoman Bordallo said cooperation between civilians and the military would be the key going forward. “We will only be successful in advancing our issues if we present them with a unified ‘One Guam’ voice. We will continue to engage with DoD to lessen the impact the relocation will have on our civilian community, especially in maintaining and protecting our cultural sites. The buildup is an important economic and regional security program, and I am committed to ensuring that it remains good for Guam and our people,” she concluded.
Despite his criticism of recent federal policy, the Governor also sounded a conciliatory tone. “What I would like to see, again, if the federal government could comply with its agreements with the Government of Guam and the people of Guam. That we can see a local community working hand in hand in progress and growth with our brothers and sisters in the federal government, and in the military bases.”
Admiral Chatfield agreed that the relocation needs to move forward, and pledged the military’s support for local concerns. “The U.S. and Japan remain committed to moving the troops here,” she said. “I think it’s very important to have the Marines in this theater. The move to Guam is very important to our national defense.”
“By design, the movement of the Marines from Okinawa to Guam is supposed to be a slower, gradual process so it doesn’t have any negative impact. Which might have been the case with the original concept.
”—Major Tim Patrick, Marine Corps Activity Guam Public Affairs Office Spokesman
“When I have my discussions with local military officials, at this point there has been no disruption in terms of the work requirements and projects that are ongoing in the military bases. And yet outside the gate, when I discuss this with the local business community, whether it’s the contractors association, the chamber of commerce, or the realtors, there’s been a profound impact.”
—Governor Eddie Calvo explained