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Spokesman says ‘lots of unknowns’

By Moneth Deposa SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April. 7, 2011) - Current economic challenges and other environmental concerns are impacting the U.S. Department of Defense's planned military buildup in Guam, according to Marine Forces Pacific's Timothy Robert.

Speaking at the 2011 Pacific Aviation Directors' Workshop at the Hibiscus Hall of the Fiesta Resort & Spa Saipan, the defense policy review initiative planning group operations officer said these challenges could force the hand of Department of Defense (DoD) to change its original plan for the Guam military buildup.

"[There are] still a lot of unknowns," he told a crowd of over 100, adding that an expected increase in the cost to relocate more than 8,000 U.S. Marines and their 9,000 dependents from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam is among the factors.

The U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to the troop transfer three years ago to reduce U.S. troop presence in Okinawa.

Robert said the original allocation for the military buildup projects was US$10 billion and he estimates that ongoing projects and other works related to the plan at present cost US$1 billion-just 10 percent of the original allocation.

The situation is further exacerbated by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan last March 11, which devastated the country.

Robert said the disaster affects Japan's ability to fund what they need at this point in time. The Japanese government has earlier agreed to spend close to half a billion dollars for the relocation.

A bulk of the US$497.8 million Japan will pay toward the military buildup in Guam will go to the design and the building of on-base infrastructure in the Finegayan area, while the rest will be spent in the construction of a fire station, a medical clinic, and an administrative facility.

As for an exact date as to when the Marines will be relocated and the total numbers that will be involved, Robert said those remain uncertain. The Defense Department earlier targeted 2014 for the troops transfer.

The Defense Department's budget challenges are also a factor that may impact the buildup plan, Robert said. The U.S. government has yet to pass a budget for the new fiscal year.

Robert also cited the additional National Environmental Policy Act efforts that are required for the project including for the relocation, carrier, missile defense, and trainings.

Despite these hosts of "unknowns," Robert assured that "everything is still on track and on schedule."

"It is continuing, the meetings are taking place, agreements are still in place, and we are prepared to move forward as currently scheduled," he added.

The buildup plan includes building four firing ranges on Tinian.

"We have four ranges on the current [environmental impact statement] and that's what we are prepared to move forward with. Anything else that would be related to Tinian in the future would be through another Environmental Impact Statement process completely unconnected to the Marine relocation to Guam," Robert said. The relocation and buildup is estimated to cost US$15 billion to US$20 billion.

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