The U.S. military is beefing up its defenses against missiles that could attack Guam as Russia wages war on Ukraine, North Korea increases the pace of its ballistic missile tests and China considers a security treaty with the Solomon Islands.

President Joe Biden’s administration is requesting nearly $900 million from Congress to protect Guam from potential missile threats from China.

That includes $539 million from the Missile Defense Agency to establish “multiple land-based radar systems, procure weapon system components and initiate (military construction) planning and design activities,” according to a budget presentation the agency gave Monday.

The Department of Defense announced its budget proposal Monday, just days after North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile yet, according to the Washington Post. The newspaper reported the missile has the capacity to reach the East Coast of the U.S. and the test prompted international condemnation.

Missile defense is just one aspect of the Indo-Pacific Command’s $6.1 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative, but Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says strengthening missile defense facilities on Guam “is of singular importance for the missile defense conversation right now.”

Guam Andersen Air Force Base B52 B1 bombers. 23 aug 2016
Andersen Air Force Base on Guam is just one base in the Pacific island U.S. territory, which is also home to Naval Base Guam and a new Marine Corps base. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“Guam happens to be very central to U.S. power projection in the Pacific,” Karako said. “The last several INDOPACOM commanders have identified the 360-degree air and missile defense of Guam as their top priority. Not one among many but their top priority.”

Building up Guam’s missile defense is a key part of a broader strategy of deterring potential adversaries from attempting to attack, he said.

“I think you see in Ukraine the cost of failing to do more soon enough,” Karako said, adding that Guam’s expanded missile defense system is expected to better defend against other types of missiles such as cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles. Russia has reportedly shot two hypersonic missiles against Ukraine.

In the Pacific, China is a more pressing concern for the U.S.

“Guam being a key base, a key hub, is vulnerable because there’s so much capabilities packed into a small area that is perfect for an adversary like China because China happens to be particularly good at missiles,” explained Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center specializing in Asia-Pacific security issues.

Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson, commander of Joint Region Marianas, said in a phone interview last week that the military is already in the process of analyzing the best sites on Guam to add new radars and interceptors.

The island already has the ability to defend against ballistic missiles through the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor, known as the THAAD.

Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said Monday the plan is to complete Guam’s new air missile defense system by 2026, but that while the agency is doing everything it can to meet that timeline, he won’t be able to give a more exact date until the exact locations are chosen. He noted the new system on Guam could be an example for elsewhere.

“What we do on Guam will inform what we do for cruise missile defense in the homeland,” Hill said.

Multi-Faceted Military Buildup

The expansion of the missile defense facilities on Guam is part of a broader effort to strengthen the military’s presence in the Marianas archipelago, which is composed of both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Nicholson from Joint Region Marianas emphasized the region’s importance in an interview last week.

“The defense of Guam is the defense of our homeland,” he said.

One month ago, the Air Force broke ground on a new divert airfield on the island of Tinian that’s expected to be completed by October 2025. The Navy has moved two fast-attack submarines to Guam with plans to station three more there by the end of the year.

Guam’s new Marine Corp Base Camp Blaz opened a year and a half ago, and the Pentagon’s budget proposal Monday includes funding for housing for Marines expected to move to Guam from Okinawa.

“The defense of Guam is the defense of our homeland.” — Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson, commander of Joint Region Marianas

The military has plans for a live-fire training range in northern Guam abutting a federal wildlife refuge, where troops could train with machine guns. More intense training ranges are being eyed for the Northern Mariana Islands. Both have sparked protests and lawsuits.

Nicholson said that missile defense is a more recent consideration for Guam compared with those long-planned military projects. Last year Congress appropriated more than $272,000 for research, development, test and evaluation of missile defense on Guam and $40,000 for procurement.

In December, the Department of Defense reported $11 billion was expected to be spent on military projects on Guam over the next five years.

Nicholson said that ideally, Guam’s comprehensive missile defense facilities would be clustered in one location but because of the island’s limited available land, the radars and interceptors will need to be spread out across several sites.

Local Concerns

Guam is home to about 160,000 people, roughly equivalent to the population of Maui, but Guam’s land mass is less than a third the size of Maui.

The military is still in the process of deciding where the missile defense facilities will be located but Nicholson said they will be placed on land that the military already owns, which includes about a fourth of Guam.

Marianas Navy base guam ship. 23 aug 2016
A ship docks at Guam Naval Base in August 2016. The island has long been a military bastion and is now considered a top military priority in the Pacific. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

It’s possible one site could be adjacent to a planned hospital. Krystal Paco, spokeswoman for Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, said the governor declined to comment on how the missile facilities could affect the planned hospital until the military releases more definitive plans.

“National security and the defense of Guam remain her priority again, given the heightened geopolitical activity,” Paco said.

Nicholson said the military recently deployed the THAAD to Rota, an island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands that’s about a half-hour flight from Guam, in an exercise that helped confirm the military’s ability to surge quickly if needed.

“As we look at where adversaries might want to target us, then we’d move things around in response to that,” he said.

The deployment of the THAAD to the Northern Mariana Islands was news to some of its leaders, including Rep. Sheila Babauta, who has long been concerned that U.S. military presence, far from protecting the islands, puts its community more at risk of attack.

“When they moved the THAAD from Guam to Rota many of the leaders in our community found out on a WhatsApp chat — it was because of a Facebook screenshot and that’s not proper,” she said. “That’s not appropriate communication with local leadership.”

Babauta says she’s concerned about how effective public outreach about planned military proposals is when the community is still recovering from the effects of super typhoons and the pandemic.

The community is used to seeing pre-positioned military ships on the horizon but more recently residents have been surprised by low-flying military planes near beaches.

Roy from the East-West Center said it’s understandable local communities might not welcome more military presence, particularly islands like Rota that aren’t already militarized.

“Even close U.S. security partners in the region are not exactly enthusiastic” about being places where the military could rapidly set up in a crisis, Roy said.

Still, Karako said that the missile defense expansion on Guam is, from a national security perspective, overdue.

“It’s taken us a while to get there but this is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be done to adapt to the world in which we find ourselves now,” he said.

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