Guam, at just 210 square miles, is a virtual speck in the vast Pacific Ocean. But the island, which will soon host 5,000 Marines, is vital to U.S. Pacific defence.
Guam’s importance was underscored Saturday by Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s visit to the Micronesian island, part of a regional island hop that included a meeting with the Japanese defence minister on Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base, which would play an outsize role in any future conflict with China.
“We remain steadfast in our opposition to Beijing’s destabilising activities in the region,” Esper told Japanese Defence Secretary Taro Kono, noting Japan’s territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
America’s defence of the uninhabited Senkaku islands is part of a U.S.-Japanese mutual defence treaty.
Esper’s visit to Guam included a survey of the future Marine Corps Camp Blaz, which will host Marines relocated from Okinawa, Japan.
“This project is evidence of our commitment to the Guam build-up & the #IndoPacific,” Esper wrote in a Saturday tweet.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Zack Cooper told the Washington Examiner that the visit to Guam and the independent islands known as the Compact States is significant, not for their potential military support but for future access for the military.
“It also happens to be perfectly placed from a military standpoint,” he said of Guam. “It’s relatively close in Pacific terms to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, even Taiwan. So, it’s sort of a logical place to be a hub for activity in the region.”
The downside, however, is that it’s close enough to China that it can be barraged by advanced ballistic missiles.
That’s why missile defence is a priority for the Pentagon.
In remarks from Honolulu before arriving in Guam, Esper described Guam as a “strategic hub for our presence in the region.”
“This includes the addition of air and missile defence capabilities, advanced intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and our ongoing bomber task force missions that prepare us to defend the Indo-Pacific at a moment’s notice,” he said in virtual remarks to the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
In any future conflict, Guam will face a host of risks, explained Cooper, from the landing of Chinese special operations forces to ballistic missile attacks and cruise missiles from the air.
“The airfield on Guam, Andersen, is therefore going to be one of the most contested places if there’s a conflict,” he said.
In a July press call, Indo-Pacific Command’s Admiral Phil Davidson said the number one priority to implementing the national defence strategy is investing in Guam.
“The first step is a 360-degree persistent and integrated air defense capability in Guam, what I call the Homeland Defence System Guam,” he said. “The backbone of Homeland Defence System Guam would be the baseline 10 Aegis Ashore system.”
Davidson said the technology is available now and can be delivered by 2026, when the United States must have a “much more robust capability” as China continues its rapid military buildup and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and beyond.
Presently, Davidson explained, the U.S. defense of Guam uses a combination of the anti-ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence via deployed ships.
Davidson said the current system provides only a small defensive capability, such as against a rogue North Korean missile shot against Guam.
“At the heart of it, THAAD and an Aegis ship is meant to defend against a pretty small wedge of the clock,” Davidson said. “When you look at the way the threat capability, the threat capacity is manifesting from China in the future … you’re going to need a complete clock. A 360-degree coverage.”
Bringing Aegis onshore in Guam brings with it other capabilities, Davidson explained.
“The funding, to me, has to get delivered in ’21,” he said of what would be required for America’s western Pacific defence. “Having that presence forward is critically important to me.”
Cooper, who will present on the Pentagon’s China Military Power Report on Tuesday, said the investments in Guam should have been made years ago.
“There are just a huge range of potential options that the Chinese have. They’re trying to limit what the U.S. can do at Guam,” he said. “If you lose Guam, everything gets harder. It gets harder to project air power. It gets harder to project naval power.”
For the Pentagon, the Chinese threat is already of concern.
Last week, China tested ballistic missiles near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” read a Pentagon statement on Thursday.
“We absolutely are going to be incredibly reliant on Guam,” said Cooper. “That’s not gonna change.”.