A week after the governor of the Northern Mariana Islands announced that the U.S. military no longer intends to set up a bombing range on the island of Pagan, the Department of Defense hasn’t released any new documentation detailing such a change in plans.

But on Thursday, a top U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official gave his word.

“It’s probably defined as much for what it isn’t as what it is,” Maj. Gen. Mark Hashimoto, executive director of the Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific, said of the newly revised military training proposal during a live-streamed press conference. “No activity on Pagan, no explosive munitions, no bombs, no artillery, no tanks, no mortar firing.”

“It shouldn’t significantly impact the interisland air traffic, doesn’t envision any kind of amphibious landing ramp which protects the coral and other sea life and it’s not going to put the entire military lease area off (limits) to the residents of Tinian,” he continued.

Marianas Tinian Beach with rocky shoreline. This beach area was down from site where drone got stuck in the trees. 28 aug 2016
The military planned to create ramps for amphibious vehicles on this beach on Tinian but those plans have now been discarded, an Indo-Pacific Command official confirmed, in the wake of broad public pushback. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

For years, residents of the U.S. commonwealth have been worried about the military’s efforts to drastically ramp up training by creating a new bombing range on Pagan. A proposal to establish a heavy artillery range on the island of Tinian further stoked feelings of betrayal and mistrust.

Commonwealth residents had once supported the establishment of a base on Tinian, and already had given up the island of Farallon de Medinilla for up to a century of bombing practice in exchange for U.S. citizenship.

The revised training intended for Tinian will reflect those concerns, Hashimoto said Thursday. Instead of amphibious landing ramps and explosives, the new training will be “a modern technology-based training concept that provides realistic training for our forces,” Hashimoto said.

Pete Perez, a Saipan resident who co-founded the community organization Pagan Watch, said he’s enormously relieved by the news but concerned that neither commonwealth nor military officials have provided anything in writing apart from the governor’s press release.

Hashimoto did not specify when a revised environmental analysis might be released but noted that he hopes the entire environmental process will be complete by 2025, with construction on the new training sites starting after then.

“You know a record of decision means a lot. An (environmental impact statement) describing the activities means a lot. All we have now is almost a photo opp,” Perez said. “You can’t go to court and say, ‘well you said this in this press conference.’”

Training To Change, Not Move

Hashimoto said the proposed training is not being considered for another location.

“No, I don’t foresee that, that we would try to establish something new,” Hashimoto said, though he added that “we are always looking for new opportunities that work for us and for the local communities.”

The CNMI Joint Military Training proposal was first put forth under President Barack Obama’s administration as part of his effort to “pivot to Asia.” Since then, two subsequent presidential administrations have emphasized their commitment to strengthening the U.S. presence in the Pacific region, and tensions in the region have been increasingly heightened.

“Our forces here in the Pacific are training to optimize our readiness against the way we think things will happen in this theater,” Hashimoto said. Right now, the biggest concern is China.

“For those of us who live in the region, it’s clear China is the greatest strategic threat to security not only in the Indo-Pacific but to the entire globe,” he said.

Much has changed since the Pagan bombing range was first proposed in 2015. Hashimoto noted that in 2019, the Marine Corps shifted its focus to committing to a lighter, mobile and distributed force.

“Instead of thinking about the clash of mass armies on land, what we more think about now is the combination of these kinds of smaller distributed harder to target units acting in concert with air and Navy forces to accomplish the kinds of missions that we think we are going to have to accomplish both here potentially in the Pacific and in other regions,” he said.

Desire For More Details

Honolulu Earthjustice attorney David Henkin also is anxious for more information.

“The sooner that they can get some details out to us, the sooner that they can be open and transparent about their plans, the better,” he said.

The desire for clearer communication from the military has been a frequent concern for some commonwealth residents as several branches of the military have ramped up training there in recent years.

The initial news of the change in the CNMI Joint Military Training proposal came from Gov. Ralph Torres’ office last week rather than the Department of Defense.

Torres is running for reelection this year and is facing an impeachment trial in the local Senate following impeachment by the House.

“The one thing that we’ve always emphasized is our culture, our environment, our land,” Torres said Thursday at the press conference, where he thanked a litany of people who helped make the change in plans possible.

Henkin’s hope is that the press conference truly reflects the military’s responsiveness to the community’s concerns.

“If it all proves to come out the way they’re pitching it, that would be very welcome news indeed,” he said.

Juanita Mendiola, who leads the Tinian Women’s Association, said she remains concerned about other military plans for the Marianas archipelago, but is happy that the Department of Defense appears to be listening to the community.

“I wish they had done that in the beginning,” she said.

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