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A double-edged sword: Guamanians have mixed feelings about missile defense system

Missile defense specialists answer Guam residents' questions during a scoping meeting at Hilton Resort and Spa on Aug, 2, 2023. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

By Gina Tabonares Reilly

How do the people of Guam react to the military’s plan to beef up the defense system on island? It is impossible to put Guam in one box. Military activities tend to trigger mixed reactions from the community. This is true for the Pentagon’s $1.5 billion enhanced integrated air and missile defense system with multiple components to be scattered around the 20 sites selected throughout the island.

The Missile Defense Agency closed the public commenting period and concluded the scoping meetings on Aug. 18 but ambivalent sentiments about the project are just beginning to arise.

Although the missile defense system is touted to deter a war, it still makes Edwina Santos nervous.

To her, the proposed infrastructure summons the image of World War II. “I got scared when I heard about it,” the Dededo resident said. “I’m scared for my grandkids. For me, the thought of going through the war reminds me of extreme hardships, starvation and possible death like what my grandmother experienced during WWII.”

Priscilla Fangepwi of Barrigada believes that the military’s plan to build the missile defense system is inevitable and beyond the public’s decision. “The island’s location makes it susceptible to all threats,” she said. “Having three military bases— Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps—we cannot help but get affected by military activities. If they decide to build a missile defense system, it’s because they think it’s what we need to defend the U.S. and we people on Guam are the front liners and first target. I don’t think we don’t have much choice.”

Jeanette Tambora of Dededo expressed concern that the missile architecture might just invite an open attack from other countries. “Guam has been safe, thank God, and I’m not sure why we need it now,” she said. “I don’t feel so confident or safe with the idea. I want to say I trust (the military’s) abilities and power, but at the same time, I am scared about what could be in the future here of Guam as well as the other Micronesian islands.”


Fred Salveijo of Mangilao sees the project as a necessity. “We are on the path of war; we are at war already. If we don’t prepare now, we can be another Ukraine,” he said. “They will get us first because we are the closest U.S. territory. If they can build it sooner, much better. If the aggressor knows we are prepared, they will think it over before attacking. It is better to be prepared than to live in fear because there are plenty of countries that want to outpower America.”

But does the missile defense system have to be built on Guam? Juliette Gilham of Maite asked. “Guam is too small. I don’t have a problem defending our country but I am worried about having all those bombs around because we are still dealing with the aftermath of the last war,” she said. “Guam people got health issues, such as cancer resulting from all the military activities we are inhaling on our island. Maybe they can put it on one of the smaller islands where nobody lives— somewhere far from Guam.”

Angilie De Alba said a comprehensive study is needed on the overall impact of the missile defense facilities. “There has to be a balance between national security and environmental preservation and it's crucial for the decision makers to comprehensively assess the potential impacts of the missile defense system on Guam’s environment and cultural heritage,” said De Alba of Dededo.


“My perspective as a military spouse has nothing to do with my (position in) favor of having a missile defense in this beautiful paradise, a strategic island that has helped maintain and keep the peace in this region. With rising threats from ambitious One China to dominate neighboring East Asian countries and the United States in its desire to safeguard peace and stability in this part of the world, Guam is in a great position to be a great deterrent to ever-rising threats especially coming from China. The world has witnessed the war in Vietnam and more importantly the war in the Pacific. Guam was vital in winning these conflicts,” Edwin Escalera said.

“Hence, the ‘tip of the spear,’ a slogan dedicated to Guam, is a reality that has to be protected symbiotically, with great importance, even with a military missile defense system. Guam may be a small island but has a mighty gigantic impact as a forefront in maintaining and creating peace and stability in these conflicts where ever they may come,” Escalera pointed out.

Raymond Pangelinan of Mangilao said Guam has always been in the crosshairs of adversaries.

“We’ve been a target ever since. The creation of the missile defense system does not make us the target,” he said. “We’ve been the subject of threats from North Korea because of our location in the region. The presence of U.S. military installations in Guam makes our island the first target. We don’t have much choice if the federal government decides to build it. We just have to pray harder that we don’t have to use it.”


Robert Underwood, a former congressman, said providing comments on the 20 selected sites for the components of the missile defense architecture is a “guessing game” given the limited information available to the public.

“If a site is near (or in) your village, a relocatable radar, a launch site, a possible C2 node, or a micro nuclear reactor are likely to raise a different level of concern. How many launchers are there? What are the anticipated blast radiuses around each site that should be anticipated if the site is targeted by an adversary?” asked Underwood, chair of the Pacific Center for Island Security.

“It is difficult to provide an intelligent observation about the EIAMDS sites if your only option is limited to a blindfold and you are asked to guess which part of the EIAMDS is pinned to one of 20 sites,” he said. “The very fact that so much is unclear makes one thing very clear: that Guam is being used as an experimental test site for missile defense development.”

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