The Changing Military Landscape on Guam

Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson Commander, Joint Region Marianas

by Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson
US Indo-Pacific Command Senior Military Official and Commander, Joint Region

Hafa Adai,

Prior to World War II (WWII), the U.S. military footprint on Guam was
relatively small (fewer than 500 service members), with only a small Navy
yard at Piti and a Marine Corps barracks at Sumay. Japanese forces invaded
in December 1941 and occupied the island until the U.S. military liberation
in July 1944.

The force laydown in Guam has undergone many changes over the years. After
liberation, the U.S. military conducted a massive build-up on Guam,
necessary to provide a staging and logistics area in order to bring an end
to the war. Construction took place across the island, including the Glass
breakwater protecting Apra Harbor; airfields at Orote Point, Naval Air
Station Agana, Harmon Field, Northwest Field near Ritidian Point, and Pati
Point; and massive lay-down areas across the island for the material and
personnel needed to press west toward Japan. Ultimately, the final acts to
close the war came from the Marianas in August 1945.

Five years of peace followed in the region before the situation changed
again. The Korean War, Vietnam War, and massive expansion of the Soviet
Union during the Cold War resulted in a build-up of U.S. forces in the
region once again. Guam continued to be an area with a large U.S. military
population in multiple areas across the island. At the height of this
period, the active duty military population was more than 26,000 (not
including family members).

After the Cold War ended, the “peace dividend” of the 1990s led to a
dramatic drawdown of U.S. forces on Guam. During the Base Realignment and
Closure (BRAC) process, more than 7,000 acres of Department of Defense (DoD)
land was transferred to the Government of Guam, including Naval Air Station
Agana (now Won Pat International Airport), Apra Harbor Naval Complex (now
commercial Port of Guam), Harmon Field (now Harmon industrial area) and many
former military housing areas. The number of active duty military personnel
decreased to around 3,000 at its lowest point in the early 2000s, yet again,
changing the military presence in Guam.

The redistribution of forces throughout the years, in response to the threat
environment, is helpful in understanding the changing military landscape on
Guam today. These discussions involve issues of federal and territorial
relations, cultural identity, military necessity and the resources required
to defend this region. The pacing threat in our region has changed, and it
is the mission and responsibility of the DoD to ensure that we are ready.
The way in which the U.S. military manages land on Guam has changed as well.

The transfer of properties to the Government of Guam through the ‘Net
Negative’ initiative was undertaken to ensure the overall quantity of DoD
land on Guam would be no greater than before 2011. This was done while
preparing to increase the military population, primarily due to the Marine
Corps relocation. Other changes have taken place to keep pace with the
threats to the region including permanent basing of submarines,
infrastructure improvements acorss the bases, and adding a ballistic missile
defense capability with an Army missile battery. This has happened while the
amount of DoD land on Guam has continued to decrease, with more than 600
acres transferred to the Government of Guam since 2011 and almost 120
additional acres currently in the transfer process.  The military is living
up to its promise of operating from, and defending Guam, while utilizing
less land.

Our adversaries throughout the world have continued to build and train their
forces, and new threats have emerged, underlining the importance of Guam’s
defense. In the past month, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North
Korea) has launched seven missile tests in this region, most recently
confirming that they are capable of striking Guam.

Based on this information, military capabilities must increase so that we
are postured to defend America’s strategic outpost in the Pacific. Former
U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson said, “Guam’s defense is
homeland defense,” and I could not agree more.

As the need for a 360-degree missile defense system for Guam is realized,
the U.S. military remains committed to our promise of a smaller land
footprint and optimizing the current DoD land. In order to fulfill these
operational requirements and remain committed to our ‘Net Negative’ promise,
we are only assessing current DoD land for potential missile defense sites
on Guam. This may require us to re-assess existing DoD land, for which there
was previously not a defined future military use, labeled as “excess” in
previous annual DoD land holdings reports.

A recent example of utilizing land labeled “excess” was the response to the
COVID-19 pandemic.  A U.S. Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility (a tent city
field hospital) was erected in 2020 at the South Finegayan site, just south
of U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz. With COVID-19 a significant health
threat to the region, the U.S. military was able to respond for the greater
good of the entire community, by utilizing existing DoD land and without
encroaching on local resources.

We honor and demonstrate this commitment by continuing to optimize, respect,
and cultivate DoD land for homeland defense while staying mindful of the
impact to the community. Defense is not just about deterring our adversaries
through our military’s presence in the region, but having the concrete
capability to neutralize any hostile forces that may threaten it.

Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson Commander, Joint Region Marianas