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HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Associated Press and Pacific Daily News, May 31) - Three hours from the Korean peninsula, F-15 fighter jets roar through the azure skies over Guam, while attack submarines probe the island's deep blue waters.

The planes just got here in March, following three subs based one by one over the last three years in this isolated U.S. territory that is 6,000 miles closer to the Taiwan Straits than to New York.

If eager local leaders get their wish, the western Pacific isle may eventually welcome the biggest military prize of all: an aircraft carrier.

The Pentagon is considering moving one of the ships - it has 12 total - to either Guam or Hawai´i to edge closer to potential flashpoints in Asia. The pending decision pits two tropical economies heavily dependent on the military in direct competition for more defense dollars.

Guam residents such as Rey Acierto are hopeful that the island will win the race.

"We’re ready to welcome them," said the 57-year-old Acierto, a father of four and a realtor with Century 21 Commonwealth Realty. "The island has been in a slump for the past 10 years. Everyone has seen what has happened to the economy and how we’ve all been affected," he said. "I think everyone is happy for the increased military presence and if we get the carrier, it would a plus-plus for us."

The island already is seeing the benefits of having more service members and their families, Acierto said.

"The rental sector has increased tremendously. Condominiums that used to go for $900 are now going for $1,300 to $1,400. It’s a big plus for us," Acierto said. "These people don’t live on the base and they go and spend their money in the community. If they spend their money outside of the base, everyone benefits."

Guam has lobbied for years for basing a carrier group here.

"Do you want to be closer to the fight or do you want to be farther away from the fight -- that's the question," said Lee Webber, chairman of the Guam Chamber of Commerce’s Armed Forces Committee and publisher of the Pacific Daily News. "There are strategic reasons that would make it logical to have an aircraft carrier here."

But it is no shoo-in for the honor. Hawai´i, about 3,700 miles to the east, wants the same economic benefits that Guam is after. It also argues it has better facilities than its western neighbor.

The military has only said it is considering both locations. The Navy now bases 11 of its aircraft carriers on the mainland: five in Norfolk, Virginia; three in Washington state; two in San Diego, and one in Mayport, Florida. Another is home-ported in Japan but is not a candidate for relocation.

There is no doubt Guam today plays a growing role in U.S. defense strategy as terrorist threats have emerged in Southeast Asia, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and China has rapidly modernized its military.

Admiral Arthur J. Johnson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Marianas, said the Navy’s presence on Guam provides a powerful deterrent to those in the region who would "create drama."

"If you were a week away or two weeks away, that provides an opportunity to do something," Johnson said. "Just by having the capability in the neighborhood, it forces people, transnational terrorists, to redo their calculus."

Already this year, the Air Force has started continuously rotating F-15s and B-2s to Guam from the mainland U.S. About five Global Hawk remotely controlled planes will be based here from 2007.

The economic benefits of hosting an aircraft carrier would be significant for Guam, where the unemployment rate is 7.7 percent. The ship would add its 5,500-crew and their families to the local population, along with about 80 fighter aircraft and several escort ships.

Guam Governor Felix Camacho said a carrier would create up to 4,000 jobs and generate close to $400 million in additional annual government revenue.

In turn, he said Guam’s substantial open airspace would provide good training opportunities for the carrier’s crew.

"You see a great number of high-level Department of Defense personnel coming through Guam. They recognize Guam's strategic location," Camacho said. This is one of the best investments, dollar for dollar that they can put into their armed forces.

Webber stressed his group has hired no professional lobbyists to campaign for them.

We're a bunch of little island boys ... saying ‘Hey, this is what we think. Here’s what we have. Come visit us, we like you. And you’re welcome here," Webber said.

To press its point, the Chamber created a 56-page color booklet of maps and statistics highlighting why Guam is an ideal place to base a carrier.

The large bill that might be required to move the giant ship to Guam has cast doubt on its candidacy, however.

Millions, if not billions, of dollars in federal spending would be needed to upgrade the island's dilapidated water and sewage systems, plus its relatively limited road network and school capacity.

Camacho acknowledged Hawai´i has an advantage over his island for such reasons. The 50th state also can count on the political clout of Senator Daniel Inouye and the rest of its congressional delegation to boost its cause, Camacho said.

Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo has said that Guam’s running for an aircraft carrier has been an uphill battle, but she continues to tout Guam’ advantages over Hawai´i.

Bordallo has said she and her office continue to work with government leaders and the Guam Chamber of Commerce to market Guam’s strategic importance to the military.

"Even if Hawai´i does get the aircraft carrier, Guam will get a considerable economic benefit from support ships in our region and liberty calls," Bordallo has said.

Not everyone on Guam is pleased by the prospect of thousands more sailors moving here, though.

Rufo Lujan, head of the Colonized Chamorro Coalition, an indigenous people’s rights group, said Guam’s leaders should have learned from the downsizing of the 1990s that they can’t rely on the military for a development boost.

"They want a quick fix to the economy," Lujan said. "The military can pick up and leave anytime it wants. We have already been victimized by that. We need a mix of industries."

Such voices are the minority, however. A Guam Chamber of Commerce survey showed more than 80 percent of Guam’s registered voters support having more troops on the island.

June 1, 2005

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com


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