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A snapshot of the proposed missile defense tests on Guam

Updated: Jul 8



 

By Jayvee Vallejera

 

Here’s how it goes: An interceptor would be launched from Andersen Air Force Base to target a medium-range ballistic missile that would be dropped from a military aircraft from a height of more than 20,000 feet and at least 800 nautical miles in the western Pacific Ocean east of Guam.


The interceptor’s first stage booster would separate soon after launch and land in an uninhabited area of AAFB. The target missile and the interceptor would then collide in outer space above the western Pacific Ocean. The debris from the intercept and parts of the target and interceptor would fall into the sea and sink to the ocean floor more than 88 nautical miles from Guam.


The Department of Defense’s maiden flight test of Guam’s missile defense system is proposed to be conducted later this year, according to the Missile Defense Agency’s 378-page Proposed Final Environmental Assessment/Overseas Environmental Assessment.


The document, released in May, said the exercises would occur twice a year over a span of 10 years and all future flight tests and tracking exercises would be conducted in a similar manner as described in the document.


The proposed action covers deploying and testing missile defense systems, including flight tests and tracking exercises, from the Northwest Field of AAFB on Guam or at sea from a U.S. Navy ship in the western Pacific Ocean.


While the EA/OEA concedes that missile testing on land would have some minor impacts, it determined that sea launches will be more complex, with debris from successful interception having the greatest potential to hit marine biological resources.


However, the agency believes the chance of that happening is “extremely low” due to the low densities of marine life within the potential flight-test debris zone and since all debris associated with the flight tests would sink to the seafloor.


Flight test debris would include the interceptor’s second-stage booster, all target booster stages, the extraction pallet and parachutes used to air-launch the target, which are projected to fall “beyond the EEZ of Guam in international waters.”


“The likelihood of any fish, sea turtle, marine mammal, or seabird being in the exact location of debris suspended in the water and ingesting it is extremely low,” and the probability of marine biological resources being in the impacted area and at the ocean surface is low; “therefore, the risk of potential impacts from noise is low.”


While the MDA has determined that the test plan would generally not result in significant impacts on Guam’s human and natural environment, military activities in the territory often trigger anxiety in the local community that weighs its acceptance of the U.S.-imposed role in homeland defense and its impact on the island’s environment and the residents’ lives.


Often nicknamed "the tip of the military spear," Guam is at the forefront of the Pentagon's deterrence strategy in the Indo-Pacific region in the face of growing threats from China. However, the local leadership is also deeply aware it must tread a fine line between supporting the U.S. military’s defense strategies, safeguarding Guam’s civilian population and looking out for its interests.


"Our focus remains on finding a balance between adapting to the changing circumstances and safeguarding our people and assets, all while upholding the nation's defense capabilities," Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said.


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The MDA has agreed to extend the comment period for the agency’s proposed actions through Aug. 2. The comment period was originally set to close on July 2, but the MDA agreed to extend it for another 30 days in response to local leaders’ request. 


“I am most especially concerned about any impacts on landowners, including the possibility of the need to evacuate their properties during testing,” Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio said in a letter to MDA director Lt. Gen. Heath A. Collins. “The government of Guam recognizes the importance of national security and the role of our island in that mission. However, the proposed activities  have the

 potential to significantly impact our environment, our economy. and the daily lives of our residents."


According to the proposed final EA/OEA, landowners on the boundaries of AAFB may be asked to stay away from their properties during the tests.


"Although the MDA asserts that there will be ‘no significant impact’ from their proposed flight tests, the 378-page document details 10-year bi-annual deployment and testing of missiles on our shores and in our waters, which may temporarily restrict residents’ use of the ocean and public and private property," Speaker Therese M. Terlaje said.


The proposed test is related to the MDA’s plan to install a missile defense architecture touted to provide 360-degree protection for Guam. The MDA has marked 19 locations on island as possible host sites for the system’s mobile components.


Missile defense experts will come to Guam next month to explain the scope of the proposed flight tests designed to assess the suitability of the tracking and interceptive system on island, according to Rear Adm. Gregory Huffman, commander of the Joint Task Force Micronesia, which will assume command and control of the Guam missile defense system.



“This is a system that is going to be unique for Guam. It’s a tried-and-true piece of equipment that we’ve used before, but we're modifying it to operate here on Guam,” Huffman said. “For the test, it's really just to ensure that all systems are working and that they can accurately employ the missile.”


The EA/OEA examined the impacts of the proposed action across several factors, including airspace management, air quality, climate change and greenhouse gases, terrestrial biological resources, marine biological resources, cultural resources, environmental justice and children’s environmental health and safety risk, public health and safety and noise.


On ground exercises, the wildlife could be exposed to increased noise levels, but noise impacts “would likely be limited to short-term, minor disturbances.”


In recovering boosters that would separate from interceptors after their launch, the EA/OEA said a biological monitor would track all activities to ensure that no unnecessary vegetation, particularly endangered species, is disturbed.  


The document concluded that the exercises would result in “less than significant impact” across all factors considered and assured that the military will take steps to minimize impacts arising from the exercises and identify potential mitigation measures.


EA/OEA states that the proposed action is consistent with existing environmental policies and will therefore not require an environmental impact statement. (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)

 


 


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