Buried in the Department of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget summary is the “deferred construction of a carrier-capable berth in Guam” in favor of “more disciplined use of resources.” In reality, the Navy’s deferral first occurred in 2010, and the Pentagon has punted on making an investment decision each year since. This berth is a key step toward solidifying a U.S. Pacific presence; in June 2012, then–Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that by 2020, the Navy would position 60 percent of its Fleet, including 6 of 11 aircraft carriers, in the Pacific. Yet today the supporting infrastructure is not in place. Fortunately, building the carrier-capable berth is not a complicated engineering feat. As recently as 2008, a modern carrier pier was constructed in Yokosuka, Japan, to facilitate the arrival of our lone forward-deployed aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington (CVN-73). This $67 million project entailed wharf and power upgrades, new buildings and facilities, and dredging to support a deeper draft. Construction in Guam is similarly doable, and 2020 is fast approaching. So why has the Pentagon continually failed to act on this relatively straightforward strategic imperative?
In part, congressional inaction may be the reason. While it’s up to the White House and the Departments of State and Defense to craft the overall strategy, Congress funds the key initiatives that underpin its successful execution. Guam sends only one non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, making it unlikely that military construction on the island receives the same level of attention as do the job-creating projects in the 50 U.S. states.
Pearl Harbor offers the Navy its westernmost carrier-capable berth on sovereign territory today. This is, thus, its last major repair and reloading port before entering the Western Pacific. The U.S. territory of Guam is more than 3,300 nautical miles farther west than the Hawaiian Islands. Its proximity to potential hotspots in East Asia would allow transient U.S. naval forces a significantly shorter sail in and out of theater.
The second part of the reason for the Pentagon’s continual punting regarding Guam may be an incomplete analysis of all potential berthing locations on the island. In 2010, the Joint Guam Program Office conducted an environment impact study on 13 potential construction sites, but eliminated 85 percent of those from the selection process before the requisite environmental analysis was completed. Effectively, this left policymakers with only two locations to consider. The entire analysis never accounted for the costs of overcoming the elimination criteria versus the pricetag of complying with environmental regulations. For example, an available berthing site to the west of Guam’s commercial port was ruled out because of security concerns that primarily stem from its location outside of DOD-owned land. But the costs of adding force protection were never calculated, so policymakers could not make valid comparisons. Combined with the high expense of environmental compliance in the recommended sites, this incomplete analysis has contributed to the Pentagon’s delayed decision-making.
A threefold approach is necessary. First, the Pentagon must appoint an independent body to complete the Aircraft Carrier Berthing analysis in the environmental impact study. At all locations, overcoming the elimination criteria at the previously ruled-out sites should be compared with the price of meeting environmental regulations. Then policymakers will have all available options.
Next, innovative cost-sharing models should be explored to fund construction. The Port Authority of Guam’s long-term modernization plan calls for the eventual construction of a new 900-foot pier to support the increasingly large post-Panamax container ships. If a larger dual-use pier were constructed, the Navy could share expenses with the U.S. Transportation Command and Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration. The Navy strategy only calls for an aircraft carrier to be in port for a maximum of 63 days per year. This means that large commercial vessels could use the facility the other 302 days.
Finally, the Asia-Pacific Oversight Series in the House of Representatives must take ownership of this issue. The continued delay of construction on Guam unnecessarily hamstrings the U.S. defense posture in the Western Pacific. Worse, this delay is occurring precisely at the moment when other Pacific powers are aggressively seeking to alter the region’s status quo.