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Iron island, tip of the spear or spear catcher?



These Islands By Robert Underwood

The ancient CHamorus and most traditional Pacific Islanders traded away lots of goods for “iron.” Pacific Islanders were familiar with the capabilities of iron although not the processes of producing them.


Over the past week, there has been a series of media stories on a different kind of iron, maybe not so highly prized. This is the iron dome. The arrival of the iron dome in Guam to conduct testing has generated a lot of interest. I don’t know what our ancestors would trade to have this kind or iron.


In an interview with Army General Mark Holler, Guam Post reporter Jolene Toves wondered whether we would change our moniker from “tip of the spear” to the “iron island.” This was in reference to the arrival of a missile defense system against shorter range missiles. This would accompany the THAAD missile defense system already in place against longer-range ballistic missiles.


Both of these U.S. Army systems will complement a Navy-managed system called Aegis. This would protect against hypersonic missiles. It could be provided by three Navy destroyers or an Aegis Ashore capability.


According to the current and previous IndoPacific Commanders in Honolulu, this is necessary in Guahan. Admiral Tom Druggan, program executive of the Navy’s Missile Defense Agency, said Guahan needs the SM-6 missile for its defense.


All of the comments made about missile defense against cruise, ballistic and hypersonic use the phrase “360 degrees.” It is an imposing and wide-ranging series of explanations that require a technical understanding of terms and weapons systems most of us don’t have. We are left to consider whether this is necessary.


Of course, a major part of this discussion has to be the threat environment and threat assessment. The United States and China are in a conflict dynamic, according to some. This seems mild as opposed to saying that China is a security threat to the United States. China is not just a competitor, it is a threat to America’s standing in the world.


According to official Department of Defense statements, China is a pacing threat. While this does not mean inevitable conflict, it means that China is the only country that can pose a systemic challenge to the U.S.— economically and militarily.


In the middle of all this, we in the islands are supposed to make sense of it. Obviously, we have different perspectives. Some are being asked to choose sides. Others have already chosen their side. But that is an unfair question in some respects.


Are the people of Guahan at the tip of the spear because they want to be? If they are no longer the tip of the spear but the iron island, what does that mean? Many of us used to argue that we want the opportunity to put our hand on the spear at some point. Can we be a spear thrower? Now, as an iron island, we are becoming a spear catcher. We are a target.


Choosing between China and the United States in a conflict is easy. I choose the United States. The question is, why do some places have to suffer more consequences as a result of a potential conflict? What is the origin of that conflict and how do Pacific islands play a role in that? No one asked that question in the run-up to World War II or even in the middle of the Cold War. Maybe now is the time to ask the question.


In some respects, the easiest analogy is to climate change. Most of climate change is due to the economic activities of large industrialized nations. The immediate bearers of the consequences of the change are the inhabitants of the islands. While islanders enjoy some benefits from the industrialized nations, most of the benefits are elsewhere. We are just supposed to express our disappointment with them at conferences like COP26 that recently concluded in Glasgow. This is when legitimately indignant islanders are able to get international attention. We have seen them in news accounts.


The problem with strategic competition is that there is no conference like COP26 to attend for discussion, let alone goal-setting. There is no consideration of an island point-of-view in this very weighty conversation on cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missile threats. Just the terms of the conversation are intimidating.


Instead, we hear pronouncements and plans from China and the United States. We get briefings if we are connected. We get phone calls and reassurances if we are in leadership positions. We get skeptical activists and we have reliable patriots who do not question much.


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In the major countries of the world, there are think tanks and organizations that contribute to that discussion from a variety of perspectives. Of course, they are funded by various political and national interests. But they are there.


In the Pacific, especially the North Pacific, we do not have a think tank devoted to analyzing strategic matters that affect us as islanders. We have thinkers. We have leaders. We have advocates. But we don’t have an island-based organization that questions and offers alternative points of view on these weighty matters.


I want to question our status as an iron island. I want to know how it fits into the military presence in other parts of Micronesia. I want people out there looking at these matters from a unique island Pacific perspective. I want informed and in-depth analysis.


We can always obtain the points-of-view of military leaders who have a difficult job to do. We can always get a sound bite from an elected official. But we deserve more and we should expect more.


The iron dome leaves this month. I guess many of us will be awaiting the next appearance of iron to trade like our ancestors did. I hope we drive a harder bargain than they did.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to anacletus2010@gmail.com.