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Pacific Daily News April 27, 2004

Guam bids for carrier strike group

By Frank Oliveri
PDN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Basing an aircraft carrier in Guam would give the United States military a more powerful presence in the Pacific Rim and would be less expensive to operate than a base on the West Coast.

It also would translate into an economic boom for the territory.

A carrier strike group and its air wing, which employ about 5,000 officers and enlisted men and women, would bring an annual windfall to Guam of about $423 million and would create about 4,136 jobs for island residents.

Guam's bid for the carrier group has strong competition from Hawaii, which is represented in Congress by Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.

But Delegate Madeleine Bordallo said she's making the island's case to anyone who will listen. And Guam already is the home of Andersen Air Force Base and a growing submarine squadron.

''There is a reason (Navy officials) have moved those subs and that flight of B-52s to Guam,'' said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. ''It gives them a front row seat.''

Basing a carrier off Guam also would save the Navy money by reducing the number of days each year that a carrier is required to cross the Pacific Ocean. And the submarines that will be based in Guam could support a carrier strike group.

''Guam is its own floating aircraft carrier,'' Pike said.

Advantages

The island offers another advantage: It would allow a carrier's air wing to stay in Guam to train.

The Navy refused to comment on Guam's potential as home port to a carrier group. But Navy studies of the island's ability to host a submarine base found several shortcomings:

Major overhauls of the carrier would have to be done on the mainland.

The Navy might need to expand pier space, maintenance facilities, housing, schools, stores and medical facilities, which could cost in excess of $200 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Guam lacks housing and job opportunities, neither of which is a significant problem in Hawaii. The Navy is conducting a $1.8 million study to assess Pearl Harbor as a possible location for a carrier. The Navy also conducted an extensive environmental impact statement in 1999 that found Hawaii undesirable because it lacked an air station that could be used to train fighter pilots.

Guam, home to the vast runway of Andersen Air Force Base and in close proximity to the Northern Mariana Islands bombing range in Farallon de Medinilla, has no such problem. Farallon de Medinilla, a 206-acre island about 45 miles north of Saipan, is the military's only live-fire training location in the western Pacific.

Also, Apra Harbor will be dredged to 50 feet this coming year, as the Navy prepares to base three attack submarines on Guam.

''The people of Guam would like more protection and security,'' said Bordallo. ''Because of our strategic location, I'm going to continue to make the case for Guam.''

Close to hot spots

Experts point out that Guam is closer than Hawaii to international trouble spots like the Philippines and Indonesia, where terrorism is on the rise, and to North Korea, Taiwan and China.

Japan hosts a non-nuclear aircraft carrier but has no intention of hosting a nuclear carrier. The United States will decommission its last two conventionally powered carriers by 2014.

Bordallo, who can vote in House committees but not on the House floor, is reluctant to address Hawaii's strengths or weaknesses as a carrier base, preferring to point out Guam's strategic place in the Pacific.

She noted that Guam is many hours closer to the Asian continent than Hawaii and said members of Hawaii's congressional delegation have been among Guam's strongest allies.

Inouye, however, pointed out that the Navy would have to invest billions of dollars to move a carrier to Guam.

''Hawaii is not struck by a typhoon every year,'' he said. ''When that happens, you are not worried about steam time. You get out of the way.''

He also said Guam has little room for the support craft that are required to move an aircraft carrier.

''Where will they be berthed?'' Inouye asked.

Bordallo countered that, ''A carrier is not just about a boat. It is about an air wing.

''We have the biggest air base in the Pacific,'' she said. ''We have unrestricted airspace. When (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld saw all that airstrip, he was shocked. We think we are in the running.''


Copyright 2004, Pacific Daily News