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Dot on the Map Regains Large Strategic Stature

Military activity in Guam is on the rise after a period of stagnation as the U.S. prepares for the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf.

January 28, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

TUMON BAY, Guam -- In 1898, an intrepid Navy captain named Henry Glass boldly sailed his warship to this tropical isle and announced to the startled Spanish governor that the United States was taking control. The U.S. and Spain were at war, and the Navy needed Guam as a coaling station to support its fleet.

More than a century later, as the Bush administration threatens war with Iraq, Guam is once again a key factor in America's ability to project military power in Asia and beyond. If there is an air war, B-52 and B-1 heavy bombers will probably be refueled in midair by planes loaded with jet fuel from three enormous tank farms run by the Air Force here.

And if those planes need more bombs, Guam's cache of air-to-ground munitions is the largest in the region.

"Lots of things change in this world -- weather, politics, economics -- but geography doesn't change," said Adm. Walter Doran, commander of the Pacific Fleet. "Guam is where it is, and it will always be important to the security of the United States."

Although the military downplays them, signs of a buildup are everywhere. For months, ships loaded with all the necessities of war -- food, fuel, gear and ammunition -- have been arriving at the Navy's turquoise deep-water harbor. From here, beans and bullets are transferred to ships headed for the Persian Gulf.

Marines have trained here for street fighting at the new urban combat center, a complex of 200 buildings where troops learn the skills that may be needed if the U.S. offensive takes to the streets. Pilots from aircraft carriers have done numerous bombing runs on desolate Farallon de Medinilla island 188 miles to the north, the Navy's only live-fire range in the western Pacific.

Still, for all of Guam's centrality to the business of war, life appears calm on this self-governing, palm-tree-lined American territory 3,400 miles southwest of Hawaii. There is more talk about the aftermath of Typhoon Pongsona, which hit the island with 180-mph winds on Dec. 8, than there is of an impending war. Questions about a possible war are answered in confident, matter-of-fact tones.

"If the balloon goes up, we're going to be ready to support a large number of aircraft and people flowing through here," said Col. Joe Mudd, commander of the Air Force wing on Guam. "That's what we do here." That Guam remains central to U.S. military strategy shows how rapidly events have changed from what was anticipated after the Soviet Union disintegrated.

In 1993, the civilian-run Base Realignment and Closure Commission, assigned by Congress to downsize the military for the post-Cold War era, targeted facilities on Guam for a series of reductions and closures.

To many, Guam was seen as a relic of the days when the U.S. needed to be ready to engage the Soviet navy on the high seas. But even as the downsizing was being implemented, a cross-current in military thinking rediscovered Guam's strategic position -- just hours by air from most major Asian capitals -- and the value of forward-deployed forces.

The result was that even as some facilities were being closed and the number of military personnel dropped by half, construction of new facilities was approved and new military units were assigned to the island. Guam, for example, will soon become home to a 250-person unit assigned to protect U.S. ships and personnel in foreign ports, a reaction to the attack on the destroyer Cole in Yemen, which left 17 sailors dead.

Since 2000, military construction on Guam has topped more than $300 million, with much more to come. Although nearly all of the projects were approved before Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center confirmed the significance of Guam as a logistic hub, a way to reduce what the military calls the "tyranny of distance" from U.S. bases to the front lines of conflict.

Guam may never again reach the Cold War level when B-52s, ballistic-missile submarines and 10,000 sailors were stationed on this 212-square-mile island. But the idea of Guam as a backwater whose significance is waning has vanished.

"In my mind, Guam is going to be more important in the 21st century than it was at the latter part of the 20th," said Doran, the fleet commander.

Talk like that is music to the ears of the officials on Guam, where a population of 160,000 is mired in double-digit unemployment. Devoid of manufacturing or agriculture, the local economy is dependent on the U.S. military and on Japanese tourists -- for whom Guam is a low-budget alternative to Hawaii.

The U.S. cutbacks and the long slump of the Japanese economy have hit Guam like a punch to the gut.

Much of the island has a tumbledown look that ill fits the lushly green environment and sparkling beaches. Guamanian officials have encouraged the military to consider the island as a perfect spot to stage troops for the nation's war on terrorism and possible conflict on the Korean peninsula, less than 2,000 miles away. A poll shows that 80% of the public agrees.

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