The changing military landscape on Guam
Prior to World War II (WWII), the U.S. military footprint on Guam was relatively small (fewer than 500 service members), with only a small Navy yard at Piti and a Marine Corps barracks at Sumay. Japanese forces invaded in December 1941 and occupied the island until the U.S. military liberation in July 1944. The force laydown in Guam has undergone many changes over the years. After liberation, the U.S. military conducted a massive build-up on Guam, necessary to provide a staging and logistics area in order to bring an end to the war.
Construction took place across the island, including the Glass breakwater protecting Apra Harbor, airfields at Orote Point, Naval Air Station Agana, Harmon Field, Northwest Field near Ritidian Point, and Pati Point; and massive lay-down areas across the island for the material and personnel needed to press west toward Japan. Ultimately, the final acts to close the war came from the Marianas in August 1945. Five years of peace followed in the region before the situation changed again. The Korean War, Vietnam War, and massive expansion of the Soviet Union during the Cold War resulted in a build-up of U.S. forces in the region once again. Guam continued to be an area with a large U.S. military population in multiple areas across the island. At the height of this period, the active-duty military population was more than 26,000 (not including family members). After the Cold War ended, the “peace dividend” of the 1990s led to a dramatic drawdown of U.S. forces on Guam. During the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, more than 7,000 acres of Department of Defense (DoD) land was transferred to the government of Guam, including Naval Air Station Agana (now Won Pat International Airport), Apra Harbor Naval Complex (now commercial Port of Guam), Harmon Field (now Harmon industrial area) and many former military housing areas.
The number of active-duty military personnel decreased to around 3,000 at its lowest point in the early 2000s, yet again, changing the military presence in Guam. The redistribution of forces throughout the years, in response to the threat environment, is helpful in understanding the changing military landscape on Guam today. These discussions involve issues of federal and territorial relations, cultural identity, military necessity and the resources required to defend this region. The pacing threat in our region has changed, and it is the mission and responsibility of the DoD to ensure that we are ready. The way in which the U.S. military manages land on Guam has changed as well.
The transfer of properties to the government of Guam through the "Net Negative" initiative was undertaken to ensure the overall quantity of DoD land on Guam would be no greater than before 2011. This was done while preparing to increase the military population, primarily due to the Marine Corps relocation.
Other changes have taken place to keep pace with the threats to the region including permanent basing of submarines, infrastructure improvements across the bases, and adding a ballistic missile defense capability with an Army missile battery. This has happened while the amount of DoD land on Guam has continued to decrease, with more than 600 acres transferred to the government of Guam since 2011 and almost 120 additional acres currently in the transfer process. The military is living up to its promise of operating from, and defending Guam while utilizing less land.
Our adversaries throughout the world have continued to build and train their forces, and new threats have emerged, underlining the importance of Guam’s defense. In the past month, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has launched seven missile tests in this region, most recently confirming that they are capable of striking Guam.
Based on this information, military capabilities must increase so that we are postured to defend America’s strategic outpost in the Pacific. Former U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson said, “Guam’s defense is homeland defense,” and I could not agree more.
As the need for a 360-degree missile defense system for Guam is realized, the U.S. military remains committed to our promise of a smaller land footprint and optimizing the current DoD land. In order to fulfill these operational requirements and remain committed to our "Net Negative" promise, we are only assessing current DoD land for potential missile defense sites on Guam. This may require us to reassess existing DoD land, for which there was previously not a defined future military use, labeled as “excess” in previous annual DoD land holdings reports.
A recent example of utilizing land labeled “excess” was the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. A U.S. Navy Expeditionary Medical Facility (a tent city field hospital) was erected in 2020 at the South Finegayan site, just south of U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz. With Covid-19 a significant health threat to the region, the U.S. military was able to respond for the greater good of the entire community, by utilizing existing DoD land and without encroaching on local resources.
We honor and demonstrate this commitment by continuing to optimize, respect, and cultivate DoD land for homeland defense while staying mindful of the impact to the community. Defense is not just about deterring our adversaries through our military’s presence in the region but having the concrete capability to neutralize any hostile forces that may threaten it.
Rear Adm. Ben Nicholson is the commander of Joint Region Marianas.