US boosting Guam’s vital role in its Indo-Pacific strategy
The Biden administration is turning Guam into a key forward operating base for deployments and other operations in the Western Pacific, with China the primary target. Guam’s centrality in America’s Indo-Pacific security strategy makes the island a key node.
On Monday, Indo-Pacific Command submitted a request to Congress for an almost $5 billion-dollar budget, along with an additional $23 billion over the next five years. This request comes under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), which is designed to enhance US military preparedness in the face of China’s military buildup. This move brings into sharp relief where Washington is building its capacity over the next few years.
Guam sits at the eastern edge of the Philippine Sea and is near the contentious South China Sea, where the US and China are engaged in competition for influence, sovereignty and the rule of law. Plans for building up Guam are not new and are not immediately “ready to go,” but there is much activity.
The US Department of Defense (DOD) last year spent $365 million on Marine Corps realignment projects from Japan to Guam. Almost 5,000 Marines from Okinawa are relocating to Camp Blaz, a new base in the village of Dededo, beginning in 2025. The Marine Corps officially activated the base last October. The Marines’ relocation to Guam is expected to cost about $8 billion, with Japan contributing $3 billion.
Along with Camp Blaz, the DOD has announced the construction of a new Standoff Weapons Complex (SWC) at the US Joint Region Marianas-Andersen Base on Guam. This SWC includes cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles and glide bombs that are carried by B-52 and B-1 bomber task forces. The SWC package is slated to be read by March 2023.
US tensions with China go from the South China Sea up to the Korean Peninsula and beyond. The point is that America continues to prepare for a future Indo-Pacific security environment whose architecture encompasses the entire Western Pacific. Guam is key in this sector as a lily pad for America’s bomber aircraft and other weapons systems.
One particular event last month illustrated Guam’s centrality to Western Pacific security. On Feb. 1, a task force of four B-52 bombers arrived at Andersen Air Force Base from Barksdale Air Force Base in the US. Guam, in this sense, is part of the Biden administration’s ongoing demonstration of its ability to move strategic assets around the globe. Some of these aircraft had been involved in flights to the Middle East in recent months to demonstrate America’s strategic and tactical reach to West Asia. The aircraft were sent to “reinforce the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region,” through “strategic deterrence.”
Importantly, the idea of using Guam in this manner is part of a strategy enacted last year aimed at ending America’s practice of keeping a continuous bomber presence on the island. The idea now is the lily-pad concept of less-predictable deployment of bomber task forces. This strategic change in thinking aligns with the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s call for “strategic unpredictability.” Last year, the Pentagon flew B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers pivoting through Guam as part of exercises with the US Navy and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. By adding the SWC, Guam becomes a key node in terms of the PDI.
The PDI is structured to bring vital military capabilities to the region and deter China. By building up its presence on Guam, the US brings the island’s geographical value into full relief. In military terms, the creation of a joint force presence west of the International Date Line offers the capability and authority necessary to respond to contingencies, while balancing lethality and survivability against an enemy.
The island is part of the Biden administration’s demonstration of its ability to move strategic assets around the globe.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Naturally, the enemy can see US moves and deterrence operations. The US and its allies in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — Japan, Australia and India — prepared ways to counter any developments that may threaten the effort to make Guam central to lily-pad thinking and planning. The island is in range of both China and North Korea, but its US-designed and operated protection systems offer strong deterrence.
The Biden administration has important plans for Guam’s future in terms of military projection and protection. There are requests for a homeland missile defense system for Guam and ground-based precision-strike weapons that can support air and maritime maneuvers from more than 500 km away. The plans also entail a space-based persistent radar that is part of the wider architecture in the Western Pacific.
Guam and its West Pacific island neighbors form the first island chain between Japan and Southeast Asia and are seen as a buffer and projection pad against China. Guam is an important part of the larger US strategic picture.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC. He is a former RAND Corporation senior political scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik