A Guam Police Department SWAT team trains with US Marines. The Pentagon plans to station an additional 5,000 Marines on the island, but its public services and infrastructure aren't yet ready for the influx.

A Guam Police Department SWAT team trains with US Marines. The Pentagon plans to station an additional 5,000 Marines on the island, but its public services and infrastructure aren’t yet ready for the influx.

Guam is America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, the fulcrum of the fabled Pacific “pivot.” It’s also kind of a mess.

With a GDP per capita less than a third the US average, an earthquake-damaged harbor, geriatric generators that black out the entire island roughly twice a year, drinking water periodically contaminated with sewage, a fire department with three working ambulances for a population of 160,000, and a police department so short-staffed it’s started deputizing unpaid civilians, according to a Government Accountability Office report due out today, Guam is closer to the Third World than to California economically as well as geographically.

That’s not just a development problem, it’s a national security issue. The Defense Department, which already owns more than a quarter of the island, plans on bringing in 5,000 more Marines and their estimated 1,300 dependents. DoD and GAO agree that the island’s infrastructure isn’t ready to receive them. What they disagree on is the cost to get it ready. The last three defense budgets requested, all told, $400 million for public infrastructure in Guam over 2012-2014, with more costs to come, but GAO doubts that that’s all necessary.

There are two big problems here, one that’s merely difficult to fix and the other nigh-impossible. The first is that the Pentagon’s still rewriting its Guam plan. The original goal was to relocate 8,600 Marines and 9,000 dependents from Okinawa to Guam by 2014, but disagreements over cost-sharing with the Japanese led the Defense Department to scale the move down to 5,000 Marines and 1,300 dependents. (Mathematically minded readers will notice that the Marine-to-dependent ratio in those two plans is radically different: My guess is this is because the current plan includes a higher percentage of young, unmarried Marine Corps riflemen).

That’s a 64 percent reduction in the number of people moving, but you can’t just cut the cost estimates by 64 percent and call it a day. A smaller force gives you more options about where to put it, such as US bases on the island that generate their own clean water, which could bring the needed infrastructure investments down more than 64 percent. But some costs are fixed – assuming that you decide to do them at all– such as upgrading water treatment plants.

That kind of costs brings us to the second, almost insoluble problem: How do you disentangle what’s needed purely to support the military– i.e. what Congress feels the Pentagon should pay for – from what’s needed by the civilian population? You can’t even draw a neat line between the two groups, because adding more Marines and their families also requires adding more civilian contractors who will work on base but never live there.

The relocation would also mean a temporary upsurge in construction workers, many of them from off the island, and, besides all the other public infrastructure the influx would require, Guamanian officials say they lack the health labs to test the newcomers for communicable diseases. Then you get into messy issues like landfill sites: The main Air Force and Navy bases have almost filled theirs up and are starting to send their trash, for a fee, to Guam’s waste disposal site, which by the way is in court-ordered receivership for environmental violations.

Congress has been deeply skeptical of the Pentagon’s cost estimates and Japan’s pledged contributions, so it keeps legislating restrictions on what the Defense Department can spend to move forces from Okinawa to Guam, leading to what one thinktank study called a “logjam.” As Congress’s accountant/attack dog, the GAO has challenged DoD on costs in the past, and the report due out today is just the latest installment in a long and dreary story.

So what does the GAO study (which we got in advance) actually recommend? The report’s title, as usual, is little help: “Further Analysis Needed to Identify Guam’s Public Infrastructure Requirements and Costs for DoD’s Realignment Plan.” (Pro tip: GAO always thinks “further analysis is needed.” If your house was on fire and you were trying to get out, GAO would tell you to first make sure that your escape plan met best practices and that you had perfected your knowledge-based systems analysis. In this case, GAO wants the Defense Department to revise its estimates for Guam – which the Pentagon is doing – before it asks for any more money and to write “an integrated master plan” for all the forces reshuffling around the Pacific – which the Pentagon is not doing.

That’s precisely the kind of long-term planning that the last two years of sequestration, government shutdown, and general legislative chaos have made impossible. Now that the budget deal has – we hope – stabilized the situation for the next two years, maybe everyone can get back to business.


Updated Wednesday to add link to now-published report.


  • Jack Everett

    The pivot to the Pacific is war mongering so why are civilian families allowed in these areas? First get rid of all civilian contractors and make the military do it’s own work. We don’t need civilian contractors nuking McDonald’s burgers for our troops, civilians that the military has the added burden of protecting. These aggressive moves by America and it’s military industrial complex is what keep the world at a high rate of war readiness.

    • Ted Strickland

      So. Are you upset with the American Military Industrial Complex? DoD civilians, civilian contractors, McDonalds, or what? A lot of the very people who complain the loudest are the first to demand the protections of the very institutions they complain about. So, you can see where I would be confused. I do think that moving 5,000 more Marines to Guam is iffy, but it isn’t completely explained. The devil is always in the details and I think that is the case here. I was surprised to understand that, as a U.S. Territory, that Guam was in sad shape economically. That is something we should be doing something about. Talk about needing economic assistance. We use the island as a vital base. We should make sure it benefits from its association with the DoD and the rest of the U.S. Sounds like the article, and your opinion needs a little work. Just saying…

    • http://defense.aol.com/ Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

      Setting aside the issue of warmongering for a moment, let me take on “why are civilian families allowed in these areas?” Because military personnel are allowed to get married and have kids, and they don’t like to leave their families behind for years at a time, that’s why. There are families on every major military base outside of active war zone like Afghanistan — and there are usually local civilians outside the base gates. Indeed, most military personnel life offbase in civilian neighborhoods anyway. I suppose you could make all the military personnel live in big barracks a mile or two away from all civilians, with a bull’s eye painted on top along with the words “attention, bad guys: you may not bomb anywhere else but here,” but I don’t think that’s what you were advocating.

      • Don Bacon

        In South Korea, also.

        news report, Jun 4, 2008

        Seoul, South Korea — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday that he supported extending the tours of thousands of troops stationed here to three years and allowing their spouses and children to live with them during their assignments. His endorsement adds momentum to a policy shift favored by commanders to improve the quality of life for most of the 28,500 troops assigned to South Korea on unaccompanied 12-month tours because South Korea was considered a combat zone, but that has changed. “I don’t think anybody considers the Republic of Korea today a combat zone,” Mr. Gates told reporters earlier this month.

        U.S. military and South Korean officials say 53 percent of construction of Camp Humphreys has been completed, and the expansion of the base should be largely finished by 2016. It will include high-rise family housing, schools, recreation areas, etc.

        The targeted completion date for what has been described by the military as one of the largest building projects in its history — at a cost of $10.7 billion to $13 billion — has been pushed back twice due to construction and funding delays since a groundbreaking ceremony in 2007.

  • gongdark

    Congressman Hank Johnson fears Guam will tip over. Better get everybody off before it does. oooooooohhhhhh.

    • http://defense.aol.com/ Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

      I know he sounded like a dork when he said, but it was almost certainly an attempt at hyperbole….

      • Geoff

        Watch the video, he really is that stupid.

        • Don Bacon

          It’s a requirement for the job.

  • Don Bacon

    Obama: “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.”

    Clinton: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

    Baloney. The US continues to invest (i.e. waste) in the Middle East, especially the Gulf region, and is withdrawing from the western Pacific region, especially Okinawa.

    Admiral Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations: “We will grow the fraction of ships and aircraft based on the U.S. West Coast and in the Pacific from today’s 55 percent to 60 percent by 2020.” Wow. China must be shakin’ in their sandals.

  • kinnison

    Relocating most of the 3D MarDiv from Okinawa to Guam is a really dumb idea coined, of course, by our dear friends the canape’-pushers at the State Department. Japan covets the land owned by the Marines on Okinawa for development, so they have to go. (No word from anyone, U.S. or Japanese, why all these years after the end of WWII the Japanese cannot afford to defend themselves for a change…) Ever been to Guam? What’s not already covered by U.S. bases and Japanese tourist hotels is nasty, tangled, triple-canopy jungle infested with 10,000 poisonous brown tree snakes per square mile. In those few unjungled areas the kunai grass is 10 to 12 feet high and sharp as a razor. It is a tiny island. There is no room to billet 5,000 Marines, let alone have room for them to train. And that’s the other 800 pound gorilla in the room—the Marines will have to constantly deploy, either by sea or by air, extended distances to somewhere they can train. And guess who will pick up the travel tab? Yep, the good old American taxpayer, not the Japanese.

    • Geoff

      Look at the bright side, they grow some of the best pot in the world…

    • Ken Olson

      i really don’t think you have a real grasp on this situation kinnison. The most likely place to billet the marines has more or less been decided to be on already military owned property in the northwest part of the island. Also, the plans are to build on-island a place to fire large weapons…not to mention another training facility being built in the Mariana Islands 30 minutes away from Guam.

      This military build up is going to happen, and you know what? The world won’t fall down because of it.

      Maybe you should spend some more time understanding this build-up before you continue to comment about it, because it’s shockingly obvious you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • http://www.federaleagent86.blogspot.com/ Federale

      Nothing that can’t be solved by judicious application of bulldozers. Crush the snakes and doze the jungle. Sounds like a job for the Seabees or KBR.

  • Geoff

    We can send tens of thousands of troops into war zones with effectively zero infrastructure, build a base with all the required infrastructure around them while under fire…but moving 5k troops onto an existing US military base in a non-combat area, where we already own the land, that already has at least the basics of infrastructure pre-existing, and is already partitioned off from the rest of the island…is too “hard”?

    Guam’s civilian infrastructure can’t support the dependents? Why do you need to send the dependents to Guam immediately? Make it a 1 year hardship tour, leave the dependents on an existing base with the required support. For that matter, why do the troops need to leave the military base at all till things start sorting themselves out? You think the troops in Afghanistan are going downtown shopping?

    • jgelt

      I spent the majority of my career overseas, none of it in the posh Euro base complexes. I did this both single and married.

      Yep, you can circle a rock with razor wire and sink enough bunkers to house everyone in short order and call it a base. These are miserable places to be. They are far worse when you are confined to these places. They can be intolerable if you neither volunteered or were prepared to go to them.

      When you pile a bunch of bored troops in a craphole you get suicides, rape, alcoholism and drug use.

      If the Hegelian argument is save a few bucks and makes the troops miserable vs. do it slow and smart and save the lives and sanity or our Jarheads, I’ll take the later.

      I never let Hegel take for a ride though. The real question is why are we wasting the effort to do this in the first place? 5000 Marines won’t stop the North Koreans from attacking the ROK and they won’t deter the Chinese from making the moves they choose to make.

      It does look like an awful damn inviting target though. Perhaps thats the whole idea.

      • Geoff

        I spent the majority of my career overseas as well, specifically in Asia with 1/1 SF, with a fairish amount of time on Guam training. A miserable place, it isn’t. It’s a fairly major Japanese tourism destination, with the infrastructure in-place to support it. Hardly the 3rd world hellhole they’re trying to depict. I’ve even taken leave there, to go wreck diving. By young bored Marine standards, it’s paradise…lots of young mainland Japanese women on vacation, booze, bars, clubs, fast food. With a side order of beaches, diving, and fishing.

        Spent my time downrange as well BTW. A modern FoB? Heckuva lot better facilities than most of the places I’ve worked from in Asia. By a long shot. I averaged 300+ days a year deployed. Usually in 3rd world hellholes with zip amenities eating crap, living like crap, being treated like crap. When I was downrange, the once a month run to the FoB was party time…fast food, buffet mess hall, haircuts, a pool, women…

        Anderson AFB is a full service military base that is considerably underutilized from its heyday. The need would be to expand and/or modernize infrastructure. 5k troops and dependents? That’s nothing more than some phone calls and a budget…if they wanted it to happen.

        Note that Guam/Anderson is strategically critical piece of real estate. Think of 5k Marines and/or their dependents as a deterrent to “forward thinking”. If you don’t think the Chinese are “forward thinkers”…well. Ditto for not seeing a limited shooting war with them in the not to distant future. One they “win” merely by not “losing”, and by not allowing it to escalate.

        • jgelt

          I’ll have to take your word for it on how livable Guam is. I only had a few stopovers on hops and no time for site seeing.

          It could be a follow the money question. Breaking Defense seems to be a haven for defense contractors to get their spin on things. Perhaps the whole story is a pitch for the current Asia theater contractor to get a big job rebuilding Guam.

          I still have severe doubts to the deterrence effect on 5000 Marines to the “forward thinking” of the PLA. One would assume our naval and air projection would be a massive deterrence. If it’s not, Marines aren’t going to tip the balance in their decision making.

  • Tex Ranger

    Maybe less snark and more analysis as to what Guam can and cant do in relation to policies set forth by the DoD and congress. I like seeing different views and points but not abject “this is a mess” scenario.”

  • Mike

    The Marines are not moving to Guam. Needing to cut 30,000 troops leaves no money for anything. And the 4000 combat troops on Okinawa are of little value, and all the rest are just overhead. The real (senate) plan can be seen on-line at G2mil, in its base closure section.

  • Guam is Good

    Guam is in much better shape than this article tells. The commercial Airport is newer and exceeds the capacity of many mid-sized U.S. cities. There is a strong hotel, retail and restaurant industry to support tourism. Telecom infrastructure is very good. Guam is the same size as Singapore, yet with only 4% of the population. There is a tremendous amount of available housing as well as vacant, developable land – both on the current military bases and outside. Yes, Guam does have some problems and needs modernization of wastewater systems, power plants and other areas such as schools…as do many mid-sized cities on the U.S. Mainland.

    • http://www.federaleagent86.blogspot.com/ Federale

      Like a corrupt and incompetant local government. Time for direct rule by Congress.

  • http://nickysworld.wordpress.com/ Nicky

    I often wonder, what about Tinian Island, Saipan, Wake Island and Midway Island. Couldn’t we just reopen all those places up and base some forces over their.

  • jack

    Singapore is only 1/3 bigger than Guam, but houses 5.3 million. Guam better be able to figure out how to handle a few thousand, and well, if u r clueless about infrastructure, why not hire the Japanese to do it right?