U.S. Military Clarifies Plans For CNMI Divert Airfield

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Officials meet, ensure Marianas that no new base is planned

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, April 3, 3015) – The United States Air Force is not planning to build a base; instead, it needs a divert air field in the Northern Marianas.

In a dialogue between Department of Defense officials and the two chambers of the CNMI Legislature yesterday on Capital Hill, U.S. Pacific Air Forces director of strategy, plans and programs Brig. Gen. Steven L. Basham told lawmakers, "It is not our desire to build a new base."

He emphasized that they do not want to improve upon an existing runway.

"But we certainly do want to minimize our impact here," he said.

General Basham was among the contingent of high-ranking Department of Defense officials that paid the lawmakers a visit yesterday to discuss their hybrid alternative on the proposed divert airfield for the Northern Marianas.

With General Basham were Marine Forces Pacific executive director (Ret.) Major General Craig B. Whelden, U.S. Pacific Command director of strategic planning and policy U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Michael G. Dana and Joint Region Marianas Commander Rear Admiral Babette "Bette" Bolivar.

"We are not building a whole new runway. We are not building infrastructure that goes around the runway," said Basham.

However, he said they will build infrastructure "that will tie us up with the existing runway."

He said, "It allows us to minimize the amount of funds taxpayers will be putting into this for a facility that primarily operates for a contingency-type scenario."

He added that the goal is to improve upon existing infrastructure.

The proposed divert-airfield operation is one of four ongoing EIS/OEIS: (1) Marine relocation to Guam; (2) Mariana Islands Training and Testing; (3) CNMI Joint Military Training; and (4) the Pacific Air Forces divert field.

With a notice of intent published in the Federal Register in September 2011, it was originally stated that the proposed divert activities and exercises would involve airfield improvements designed to provide additional divert capability for various military aircraft operating as part of joint training exercises, humanitarian-assistance activities, and disaster-relief operations for northeast Asia.

In yesterday’s dialogue, General Whelden further clarified the reason that the divert airfield could not be set up on the north side of island.

"The reason we wouldn’t put the divert airfield at the far northern end of Tinian is because we have planned ranges in that area," said Whelden referring to the separate environmental impact study on the proposed CNMI Joint Military Training EIS/OEIS that proposes to build ranges and training areas on Tinian and Pagan.

Concurring with General Basham’s statement on the Air Force’s intent in undertaking the study, Whelden said, "His charge is not to build a new airfield, but to maximize existing airfields to the extent they can be used for divert capability — whether it is a national emergency, conflict or humanitarian assistance or disaster response."

Following their dialogue with lawmakers that lasted from 2 p.m. through 5:20 p.m., General Basham elaborated on what he said about not intending to build a new base.

Underscoring their intent to use taxpayer money prudently, General Basham said, "We’ve got to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollar. We don’t need a new base. We just need a resilient capability."

For Basham, who has lived on bases, what the Air Force is requiring is a fallback divert field.

"If something happens to Andersen Air Force Base, we need to operate from somewhere else. We are just looking for places to be able to operate from should a contingency or humanitarian assistance or disaster relief issue occur but not actually to build a full base," said General Basham.

The divert-airfield facility and the joint training areas and ranges are the closest that Tinian could ever get to the promise of a base in the 1970s.

During the height of the negotiations over the Covenant, the United States had been looking for a fallback base for the Third Marine Division.

The United States government looked at fulfilling its promise to have a base constructed on Tinian.

Based on a declassified document, in Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Thomas Hinman Moorer’s letter to the Secretary of Defense, Moorer referred to a DoD memorandum indicating a request for approval of construction and programming on initial segments of the Tinian base.

Citing the memo, Moorer stated the anticipated inclusion of Tinian development project in the fiscal year 1974 budget and DoD’s request for Joints Chief of Staff’ opinion on whether or not a short programming delay in the development of the joint military base on Tinian would jeopardize national security.

Moorer said "the Joints Chiefs of Staff continue to believe that the near-term development of Tinian is necessary to the security interests of the United States."

Moorer also said the early development of a joint U.S. base on Tinian as the most advantageous method of satisfying near-term military requirements.

Hybrid alternative

The delegation of high-ranking Defense officials have been meeting various groups in the CNMI this week to discuss the divert airfield and the CJMT EIS/OEIS.

In meeting the various groups, the blended alternative for the divert facility was presented in which this modified alternative proposes to divide 12-tanker aircraft between Saipan and Tinian.

To mitigate noise, they assured local officials that the divert operation will not include fighter aircraft.

They also pointed to the minimum footprint on Saipan with a majority of the development to occur on Tinian.

This hybrid alternative will provide the U.S. military with two locations and adds resiliency for their operations.

It was noted that the primary divert location will be Tinian, typically, with 2-4 tankers, about 6-8 weeks a year.

What lawmakers think

The legislators present were mostly members of the Federal and Foreign Affairs Committee headed by Representative Angel Demapan.

Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero, Senators Arnold Palacios, Jude Hofschneider, Sixto Igisomar, Frank Cruz and Representatives Joseph Leepan Guerrero, Felicidad Ogumoro, Francis Taimanao, Edwin Aldan, John Paul Sablan, Blas Jonathan Attao, Larry Deleon Guerrero, Roman Benavente, Ramon Tebuteb, Anthony Benavente, Vinnie Sablan and Edmund Villagomez were present to hear what the military had to say about their plans to build a divert airfield on two islands.

Demapan who wrote a letter to Bolivar last week to request a meeting with members of the DoD said the meeting yesterday will not be the last because more discussion is needed for a fuller understanding of the proposal.

"It was a very good meeting and honestly we needed more time, but we maximized the time we had today. We received a lot of information that can help us understand this proposal, but there is a lot more to discover and a lot more to review about the proposal before we can take a positions on it. However, we hope that this is a beginning of a working partnership to bring the concerns of the commonwealth to the table at the same time when they bring their concerns about national security and hopefully with that process we’ll be in a better position to strike a compromise that will be beneficial to the Commonwealth and to the United States. But it’s our job to make sure that we put the CNMI first. We need to protect our culture,"Demapan said in an interview after the meeting.

Representative Ogumoro said:

"There’s a lot of information that we need to get because if we make the wrong decision we will have to live with it so we need to take our time. We asked them to give us more information -- as much as possible. Some of us have already decided in terms of the militarization of those areas whatever that decision is it has to be in the best interests of the people,"she said.The lawmakers raised various concerns, among them: whether the CNMI will still be part once the entire process is completed, whether the US will pay for any damages to the environment, what would the impact of these military exercises be on the environment and on the community, the noise and whether the US submitted a letter of intent to use lands for military exercises and why the US chose Tinian and Saipan for the divert airfield exercises.

Craig asked the lawmakers to keep an open mind and to continue open discussions of their concerns in pursuit of economic development.

"Let’s keep an open mind and talk about what your concerns are. Let us discuss how we can partner together in this project," he said.

Governor Inos welcomes Pentagon officials

Governor Eloy S. Inos welcomed to his office yesterday two Pentagon officials along with other Department of Defense officials in the region.

Governor Inos had a meeting with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Dennis McGinn and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Miranda A.A. Ballentine.

During a press conference yesterday at the conference room of the Administration Building, Governor Inos said, "There has been quite a lot of resistance in the CNMI from the stakeholders on the divert issue and it is coming to a point where more dialogue will be needed to resolve the problems and find a new approach: the hybrid approach."

He said this was something he did not foresee.

"I am keeping an open mind. I am listening to what the plans are. The major stakeholders include the CPA. I want to ask them the same thing," he said.

Joint Region Marianas Commander Rear Admiral Bolivar said they were pleased to be back on Saipan along with the two distinguished Pentagon officials.

She said they were facilitating the brief visit by the two assistant secretaries.

Ballentine said, "We’re here only briefly. It’s been a weeklong consultation and collaboration."

It was Ballentine’s maiden visit to the CNMI.

She applauded the pristine environment as well as the hospitality.

"The Air Force is pleased to be working closely with the governor, the lt. governor, the CPA, and the community to look for solutions and a path forward to balance regional security needs, national securityneeds and the local community’s needs."

She added that they will be looking at striking a balance between cultural, environmental and economic needs.

McGinn agreed with Ballentine.

"I share Secretary Ballentine’s enthusiasm for the opportunity we’ve had to visit Saipan and Tinian. There is nothing like actually walking the ground and meeting the people to give one an appreciation for who the real stakeholders are, and what we are trying to do together."

He said he learned a long time ago that "life is a team sport."

This, he said, is evident in the team of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy.

"We want to work with you, address every question or concern to create a winning outcome for all stakeholders.

This, he said, can only be done through collaboration, communication and transparency in the process.

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