CNMI Governor Calls On U.S. Air Force To ‘Keep Past Promises’

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Inos makes new case for divert airfield on Tinian, not Saipan

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, May 28 2014) - Gov. Eloy S. Inos has called on the U.S. Air Force anew to place its planned divert airfield on Tinian, saying the continued insistence on the use of Saipan creates an "impression" in CNMI people’s minds and hearts that this military branch "has no real intention of keeping past promises by the United States government of being good neighbors or stewards of the land."

Such "negative impression," the governor said, will "not bode well" for the Marines, the Navy, or the Army, which all want to hold additional training in the CNMI related to the Asian pivot.

As of this week, the Air Force has not decided yet where to put an alternative landing base if Andersen Air Force Base in Guam becomes unavailable because of weather or war.

Gen. Herbert C. Carlisle, commander of the Pacific Air Forces or COMPACAF, told Inos that National Defense Authorization Act funding could be put "at-risk" if no progress is made on the location of the divert airfield.

Inos, in response, said the CNMI does not want that to happen.

"However, if by this time in the process, the Air Force is not certain about the viability of the Tinian location, then we fully understand the Air Force’s desire to explore other options to establish locational capability outside of the CNMI," the governor said in his May 21 response letter to Carlise, a copy of which was obtained yesterday.

Rep. Ray Tebuteb (Ind-Saipan), in an interview yesterday, said "at the end of the day, the military will be the one to decide where it needs to place the divert airfield."

Tebuteb authored a resolution supporting the placement of a proposed divert airfield on Saipan. His House Resolution 18-52, prefiled in January this year, remains with the Committee on Foreign and Federal Relations.

The Air Force proposes to improve an existing airfield through the construction of facilities and infrastructure in the western Pacific to support one aircraft squadron and about 500 support personnel for periodic exercises, emergency, and humanitarian assistance.

Tebuteb said if the divert facilities are on Saipan, the project will require the lease of public lands resulting in income to the CNMI. However, if it’s placed on Tinian, federal lease-back lands will be used, he said.

Inos earlier said the Air Force’s request to lease 33 acres of land on Saipan for the next 50 years for a proposed divert airfield "is quite an undesirable conclusion as it would impede future commercial development in the area."

On Tinian, two-thirds of lands are already leased to the military.

Carlisle provided Inos on May 7 with a copy of the Air Force’s report submitted to the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the divert and exercise project.

Two weeks later, the U.S. House passed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015 that includes Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan’s (Ind-MP) one-page amendment to expand the existing authorization for a proposed U.S. Air Force divert airfield construction project "at any suitable location in the Northern Mariana Islands."

Tebuteb said Sablan’s amendment gives the Air Force flexibility where to put the airfield, and not necessarily on Tinian.

The governor, however, reiterates that placing the divert airfield on Tinian is in the "long-term best interest" of both the Air Force and the CNMI.

He said the Tinian alternative can fully satisfy all the mission requirements set out in the assessment work completed to date.

If, as suggested, the actual use of the divert airfield will be slight, then the Air Force can surely co-exist with the Marines on Tinian, Inos said, and use the West Field as its operations location.

Inos cited other "indirect" benefits if Tinian is chosen as location of the divert airfield.

"For example, with respect to the overall militarization ongoing in the CNMI, the fact that the citizens and residents of Tinian support and are prepared to welcome the Air Force to that island should be re-assessed and evaluated," he told Carlisle.

The governor said one could argue that the Air Force has improperly discounted or failed to calculate the true worth that should be given to that fundamental fact.

Moreover, he said, if the Air Force is to become the first active military force doing work in the CNMI, he would hope that the Air Force would do so in such a way as to "create goodwill and a spirit of cooperation" between the CNMI and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"The Air Force is uniquely positioned to select a location from which long-lasting military activities in our islands will occur. The Tinian location presents a situation where military activities are welcome," Inos said.

The governor said the people of Tinian have labored under economic duress for U.S. military development of the property already under lease for the 40 years.

"For the Air Force to now argue that the initial costs are just too high to develop the property, which was expressly acquired for military purposes so many decades ago, is not well-taken. Worse, I fear the Air Force’s insistence upon Saipan as the only location for this initiative is creating an impression in the minds and hearts of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands that the Air Force has no real intention of keeping past promises made by the United States government of being good neighbors or stewards of the land," he said.

Combining the Air Force and Marines initiatives on Tinian, he said, "makes better economic and common sense in the long run while at the same time resulting in the greatest benefit to the people of the CNMI."

Doing this also honors the commitment in Section 806 of the Covenant between the CNMI and the U.S., where the latter agrees to recognize and respect the scarcity and special importance of land in the CNMI, Inos said.

"As governor, I am under an affirmative duty to properly manage and protect the limited public land we have available for future generations and growth. Under the circumstances, it must be recognized that the initial startup cost should not necessarily be the controlling determinative factor when major decisions involving the public interest must be made," he added.

The governor hopes that the CNMI and the Air Force can continue the discussion.

He reiterated that should the Air Force decide that Tinian is the more appropriate location, then his administration is prepared to give its full support and undertake actions needed to push the project.

Meanwhile, Sablan’s amendment to the 2015 NDAA would permit expenditure of funds on Tinian in the event that the Air Force and the CNMI agree that Tinian is the appropriate location for a divert airfield.

The authorized $29.3 million would construct an aircraft parking apron, a maintenance facility, and a hazardous cargo pad.

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