Marianas To Play Key Role In National, Regional Security: Expert

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‘Forward presence … in the region could not be any more urgent’

By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, May 5, 2015) – It is all related to national and regional security.

The plan to have the U.S. military train in the Northern Marianas allows them to remain proficient in the skills necessary to foster peace and maintain regional security.

"Having a forward presence, with Marines in Okinawa, Marines in Guam, Marines in the Northern Territory six months a year in Australia, and Marines training in the Northern Marianas, demonstrates the will of the United States to be here for our allies and the security of the region," said Marine Forces Pacific Executive Director Craig B. Whelden on Thursday night following the public hearing on the draft CNMI Joint Military Training environmental impact statement.

Asked by Variety if by establishing training facilities here, the United States was addressing national security concerns, Whelden replied, "I can say that."

He said the U.S. president has made it clear that there is a shift to the Pacific in terms of the focus strategically.

[PIR editor’s note: Marianas Variety and-for-military-purposes" target="_blank">reported that CNMI ‘Senator Arnold I. Palacios has introduced a measure prohibiting the Department of Public Lands from leasing any commonwealth land for military purposes’ and that ‘an online petition addressed to President Obama, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Senate has over 190 signatures and 808 supporters from all over the Marianas including Guam. ... The letter can be found at’]

"There are a number of indications as to how we are doing that. One of them is that the Secretary of Defense directed the Marine Corps to establish a forward presence in the region. We have over 22,000 Marines west of the International Dateline. We plan to maintain that forward presence. That forward presence is a deterrent to adversaries that might otherwise think they can do what they want," he said.

There have been various reports about China’s incursions in the South China Sea that have been causing instability in the region.

The islands in the South China Sea are claimed by various countries; however, China is claiming all of the islands based on its historical claims.

China was recently reported to be reclaiming land and building an airfield in the South China Sea.

Whelden provided background on the issue, saying that China’s maritime claims were based on a map depicting nine line segments encircling islands, waters and other features in the South China Sea.

"There is an arbitrary line drawn by the Chinese in the late ’40s that essentially encompasses the South China Sea," said Whelden.

He said this contest of claims between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and other countries "are putting the area at risk."

Whelden said having a forward presence in the region assures the allies of the United States commitment to regional security.

Online reports show that the U.S. is bent on fulfilling its commitment.

Hawaii’s Honolulu Star Advertiser reported yesterday that China is a factor in the latest Philippines-U.S. base agreement, that there were reports indicating that the Philippines had allowed the U.S. to access eight bases for rotational deployments.

A local TV network in Manila reported that China has been reclaiming islands and is building a concrete runway.

This, the report said, could lead to deployment of long-range radar and advanced missile systems and the establishment of an air defense identification zone according to U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Samuel Locklear III.

The forward presence of the U.S. military in the region could not be any more urgent.

The American think tank, Center for Strategic & International Studies reported the need for the U.S. Congress to fund facilities in the region.

The think tank said the U.S. Congress must be prepared to fund the cost of modernizing U.S. facilities on Guam and elsewhere in the Western Pacific.

"The Congress should be prepared to fund the fairly modest costs of modernizing U.S. facilities in Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific Command’s area of responsibility."

By doing so, it will indicate to U.S. allies that the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration are prepared to work together to sustain momentum in their engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.

As to meeting the unfilled 42 training requirements here, Whelden said this is all related to national security.

"Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors need to train regularly. Skills atrophy over time," he said.

There are tasks, he said, that are required at the individual level, collective level, and a larger level in order to maintain combat readiness and proficiency.

"So the training regimen that we might do here in the commonwealth is designed around the requirement for the Marines to be training ready so that when the nation calls, we can go."

That training that affords them the proficiency in various skills allows them to respond to emergencies and contingencies in the region as they did when the Marines deployed recently to Thailand to assist Nepal.

It was also the same case with the Marines being the first on the ground in Leyte, Philippines, when it was struck by the strongest typhoon in history in 2013.

Fury exercises not sufficient to meet CJMT requirements

Asked if the Fury trainings were enough, as some commenters in public hearings contend, Whelden said, "Absolutely not."

He said the Fury expeditionary exercises are "Aviation Training Relocation Exercises."

"What that means, because of some restrictions we have in Japan, the Japanese government pays for about 75 percent of the exercises to go elsewhere, to Guam and to the CNMI. That is the reason many of the aircraft from Japan and Okinawa come here. That does not meet the 42 unfilled training requirements that we have identified," he said.

Promise of a base and commissary

There were several comments made regarding the U.S. failure to live up to its promise of building a base on Tinian during the Covenant negotiations.

Whelden said, "I don’t know what happened 30 or 40 years ago. Perhaps there was an indication that there was a plan at the time to build a base here."

However, he clarified that nowhere else in the world are there U.S. bases which people can have access to.

"If you go to Guam, and you look at the base, either at north end or south end, Andersen Air Force Base, or Apra Harbor Naval Base, those are restricted spaces. Nobody gets inside unless you have an authorized ID card."

"It is kind of a mischaracterization that the people of Tinian would get access to the northern two thirds if we have a base. Bases all over the world, in the continental U.S., in Okinawa, on Guam, everywhere I have ever been, they all have gates with access control," explained Whelden.

As to the promise that there would be a commissary, Whelden said, civilians have no access to commissaries.

"Those are for ID card holders," he said.

He reiterated that he does not know what transpired decades ago.

"If they built a base here, there would be a fence from one side to the other, and a gate that nobody could get through without a special ID card," he said.

‘You already have FDM’

Responding to comments about already having FDM and whether having the training facilities wasn’t redundant, Whelden said FDM is a bombing range for the military.

"Pagan and Tinian are proposed and intended to be training areas that have live-fire components to them," he said pointing out the difference between them.

He said, on Pagan for example, the live fire high impact area is exclusively in the volcanic caldera. "So fauna, and flora, and all will be protected from any of that. So when people talk about the destruction of Pagan, we are concerned about ensuring that we protect Pagan just like the people from the Northern Islands are."

Whelden said, "We are very good stewards of the environment. I can demonstrate that."

He had earlier invited the mayors of Tinian and the Northern Islands to visit Hawaii so he could show them how the ranges there function.

"Let us show you how we can be good neighbors," he said.

Whelden also highlighted that there will be collaboration between the military and Pagan residents.

He said they are prepared to discuss with the Northern Islands residents a collaboration arrangement "whereby we could work together."

He said, "There is an argument I believe, that in order to achieve the objectives of some of the people of the N.I. would like to achieve, the best partner they could get is the U.S. military."

He said the U.S. military could probably help put in the USGS monitoring of the volcanic activity.

"It’s not there now. It stopped over a year ago," he said.

He said they can fix the airfield that can then be used by commercial aircraft.

They could also improve the port so the people can access the island by sea.

They can also provide revenue to the CNMI through a leasing arrangement "which I believe could be used for the benefit of the N.I. ultimately to resettle in Pagan."

Contrary to some claims that they have not done anything to clean up WWII ranges, Whelden said the Chiget Mortar Range is on the list for cleanup.

"Surveys have been done on what is required there," he said.

He said he is going to look into where it stands on the list and see "if we could get it much higher on the list."

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