WASHINGTON -- A number of Guam legislators are calling for the U.S. military to leave in place on their island ballistic missile defenses that were set up on a temporary basis this spring amid saber-rattling by North Korea.
Last week, a trio of local Guam lawmakers introduced a resolution in the Guam legislature that urges the U.S. government “to permanently station a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and a Patriot Missile Defense System on Guam.”
Guam is home to a major U.S. navy base from which the United States projects submarine and strategic air power throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. territory might be vulnerable to North Korea’s intermediate-range Musudan missile, though the range of the ballistic missile appears not yet to be known in the West.
In early April, the Defense Department announced the fielding to Guam of a THAAD battery. Such units comprise a truck-mounted launcher, interceptors, radar, and fire control. The launcher can be equipped with up to eight missile interceptors. The technology has the capability to eliminate short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in their final flight stages, inside or outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
The antimissile deployment came on the heels of threats by the North Korean People’s Army Supreme Command that it would carry out attacks on “the U.S. mainland and on Hawaii and Guam and other operational zone[s] in the Pacific.” Since then, tensions have cooled substantially and Pyongyang is making overtures at diplomatic re-engagement.
Yet, some in Guam continue to worry about what might happen the next time tempers flare on the Korean Peninsula.
"While we were fortunate to welcome the nation’s newest land-based missile defense system, I believe we must continue working with our nation’s leaders to permanently secure missile interceptor systems on Guam to effectively protect our island, its people, our neighbors and regional allies,” the resolution’s sponsor, Guam state Senator Frank Aguon, said in a statement carried by regional media.
Guam’s non-voting delegate in the U.S. House, Representative Madeleine Bordallo (D), in an e-mailed statement said she appreciates the efforts by Aguon “to address the security concerns residents of Guam have expressed.”
“I have raised these concerns with the Joint Chiefs [of Staff] during several hearings in the House Armed Services Committee. Moreover, the House version of the [Fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act] includes a provision requiring a report from [the Defense Department] on establishing a permanent missile defense capability on Guam,” she said.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller said the military is continuing to assess the defense needs of Guam.
“We are quite confident in our ability to rapidly deploy this system as dictated by threat levels,” he said.
In e-mailed comments, the spokesman noted the limited quantity of THAAD batteries that the military presently possesses. There are a total of three such operational systems; the other two batteries are based at Fort Bliss, Texas.
The THAAD battery in Guam is the first of its kind to be deployed. Prior to its fielding, some U.S. officials had advocated basing it in the Middle East so as to protect Israel and regional partner nations from feared Iranian missile threats, according to an April Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon plans to expand its arsenal of THAAD batteries by a minimum of three more systems, according to Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance founder Riki Ellison. Each system costs around $1 billion or more, if its radar and other components are taken into account, he said.
Guam “has been virtually unprotected by ballistic missile defenses up until this point,” Ellison said on Tuesday.
The initial emergency 90-day deployment period of the THAAD battery is nearly over. The Pentagon has the choice of extending the deployment for a year as it studies its options, he said.
Ellison, who recently visited Guam, said he believes many people in Washington would support leaving the antimissile system on the Pacific island. He argued it would help maintain regional peace and also allow an Aegis destroyer, which was redeployed this spring to protect Guam and other assets, to shift to other missions. The Navy’s Aegis ships are in high demand all over the world, so this would be a considerable benefit, he said.
“I think it’s also part of the shift [of focus] to the Pacific that the president has requested,” Ellison said. “I think it’s a huge strategic piece.
However, there would be downsides to keeping the THAAD battery in Guam, according to Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
“Requiring that one stay deployed in Guam permanently … would prevent the United States from being able to move around the limited number of THAAD batteries it has to respond to particular crises,” Reif said. “It would undermine the flexibility and adaptability of what we have in terms of THAAD.”