March 10, 2006
The "Tyranny of Distance" in Pacific Command
The U.S. Pacific
Command is recasting the posture of its military forces in the
western Pacific and Asia with the new pivot point to be a robust
base on the island of Guam and with the operative watchword having
already become "flexibility."
at a map," said the command’s leader, Admiral William
J. Fallon, as he flew toward Guam after a week-long trek through
Southeast Asia. He pointed to the relatively short distances from
Guam to South Korea, the Taiwan Strait across which China and
Taiwan confront one another, and Southeast Asia, the frontier
of terror in Asia.
often talk about the "tyranny of distance" in the Pacific
Command’s area of operations, which runs from the west coast
of North America to the east coast of Africa. Guam, when it is
fully operational, will provide a base for land, naval, and air
forces closer to targets than for forces on the U.S. mainland
or Hawaii. Guam was a major air base during the war in Vietnam.
advantage, Fallon said, was that "Guam is American territory."
The island does not have the political restrictions, such as those
in South Korea, that could impede U.S. military moves in an emergency.
President Roh Moo Hyun, who has repeatedly taken an anti-American
stance, has suggested that U.S. forces could not be deployed from
Korea without his government’s approval.
In an interview
on his airplane and in Congressional testimony this week, the
admiral emphasized the vital role that Japan would continue to
play in U.S. strategy. "The U.S.-Japan alliance remains the
most important pact in the Pacific," he said. Even so, depending
on what sort of government is in power in Tokyo, there could be
political complications in deploying forces elsewhere from Japan.
to Guam is the rundown state of the island’s infrastructure,
meaning roads, the electrical system, the water supply, piers,
and airfield runways. "I want that infrastructure fixed,"
Fallon said. One runway at Andersen Air Force Base has already
been torn up prior to rebuilding it. Guam is vulnerable to typhoons
and should have its power lines buried, Fallon said.
he saw the island as primarily a staging area through which troops,
ships, and planes would surge toward contingencies in Asia. The
island’s maintenance and repair capacity would be refurbished
and expanded so that aircraft carriers, for instance, could be
serviced without having to return to home ports on the West Coast.
this will cost and whether Congress will provide sufficient funds
has yet to be determined.
Marines, including the headquarters of the III Marine Expeditionary
Force, would go to Guam from the Japanese island of Okinawa where
friction between Marines and Okinawans has been constant. Three
fast-attack submarines are based at Guam now and two more will
be assigned there. Squadrons of B-1 bombers are rotated through
Guam from the U.S. for several months at a time.
U.S. forces in Japan, American and Japanese officials have been
putting the finishing touches on an agreement due to be completed
by the end of March. It was to include a new U.S. Army headquarters
alongside a Japanese Ground Defense Force headquarters at Camp
Zama, southwest of Tokyo, and a similar arrangement for air force
units at Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo.
already agreed that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George
Washington will replace the Kitty Hawk, driven by conventional
steam turbines, in Yokosuka in 2008. Kitty Hawk is to be retired
the discussion of his vision for positioning forces in the Asia-Pacific
region, Fallon emphasized "flexibility." "We need
to have forces ready to react," he said. "We must have
built-in flexibility" to meet emergencies, including disaster
relief and other humanitarian operations.
that when he flew by helicopter from Clark Field north of Manila
in the Philippines to the amphibious assault ship Essex at sea
to thank the Marines and sailors aboard for their efforts in trying
to rescue victims of the giant mudslide on the island of Leyte.
responded magnificently with great speed, agility, demonstrating
flexibility in shifting your priority focus," he told sailors
and Marines assembled on the flight deck. They had started an
exercise in the Philippines before taking on the relief work.
testimony, Fallon expanded on that theme: "Forward deployed
forces, ready for immediate employment, send an unambiguous signal
of undiminished U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific area. Agile
and responsive global forces also act to deter aggression."
Richard Halloran, formerly
with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and
military correspondent in Washington, writes from Honolulu. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org