The U.S. recently opened a new Marine Corps base on Guam that will eventually house 5,000 Marines and be a hub for quick-reaction forces in the Western Pacific.
Guam is one of the most remote parts of the U.S. and is the U.S. territory closest to Taiwan. Taiwan is 2,700 kilometers to Guam’s northwest, Hawaii is 6,350 kilometers to its east and Seattle lies 9,100 kilometers to its east.
These incredible distances have made it very difficult and complicated for the U.S. to build bases, ports and airports on this very strategically located island.
With a length of just under 50 kilometers and a surface area of 561 square kilometers, or 217 square miles, Guam is a relatively large Pacific Ocean island, and it is by far the biggest island in its island chain, the Mariana Islands. This size makes it more than big enough to accommodate sprawling towns that house most of its 153,000 people, as well as a sizable naval base, a large air force base and other U.S. military bases.
The U.S. used to base around 26,000 troops on the island during the Cold War, but that number fell to 10,000 when the U.S. started withdrawing forces during the 1990s. That number is now slowly rising again, and another 5,000 Marines will be added to the number over the next three years. These Marines will be stationed in a new Marine base called Camp Blaz, which is currently being constructed and already houses around a hundred Marines.
The Navy officially opened the 4,000-acre Camp Blaz on Thursday January 26, marking the first new base created for the Marine Corps in 70 years. The Marine Corps says the base will form a new strategic hub that will serve to realize the Department of Defense’s vision of the 2022 National Defense Strategy. The strategy focuses on deterring U.S. adversaries from starting conflicts, with special emphasis on deterring China from invading Taiwan and upending the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region.
The base would help to strengthen the Marine Corps’ new strategy of launching quick-reaction forces, called Marine Littoral Regiments, toward small islands of Japan and other allies that lie close to Taiwan, if an invasion of Taiwan seems imminent. These new regiments are focused on mobility and feature lightweight weapons, drones and powerful missiles like the NMESIS anti-ship missile system. From islands around Taiwan, Marines would be able to use these powerful ship-killer missiles in conjunction with anti-air missiles to deny large areas of ocean and airspace to Chinese warships and warplanes.
Camp Blaz adds yet another strategic strongpoint to the island, which is also home to a U.S. naval base that can serve aircraft carriers and other warships while also being a base for four U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarines. Guam is also home to Andersen Air Force Base, a sprawling facility that can serve B-1, B-2 and B-52 heavy bombers, as well as dozens of fighter jets.
With this much strategic value, the island is now increasingly being targeted by hundreds of sophisticated Chinese and North Korean missiles. These include ballistic, hypersonic and cruise missiles that can be launched at Guam from land, air and sea — including from Chinese submarines that can theoretically sneak around Guam to launch missiles from the island’s eastern flank.
Twenty years ago, Guam’s missile defenses only needed to account for China’s ballistic missile arsenal. Ballistic missiles travel on a predictable arch that make them relatively easy to intercept. To defend against such missiles, the U.S. installed multiple THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) launchers around its most vital bases on Guam. However, since then China has developed large numbers of hypersonic and cruise missiles that cannot be intercepted by THAAD missiles.
For these reasons the U.S. had tested Iron Dome air-intercept missiles on Guam to see how effective these would be as an additional layer of missile defense. The military eventually decided the Iron Dome is not compatible with its systems and purchased test units of Dynetics’ Enduring Shield system, which uses palletized AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles as its interceptor. This system’s Sidewinders would be launched from ground-based launchers, rather than from the wings of fighter jets. However, this purchase is being delayed by supply chain problems.
Such land-based systems would be used in conjunction with air-defense missiles like SAM-3 and SAM-6 missiles that are housed on U.S. warships and controlled via the Aegis radar and control system that combines the sensors and missiles on multiple U.S. warships to defend against incoming missiles and warplanes. Currently, Guam’s missile defenses primarily consist of truck-based THAAD systems and AEGIS systems on warships patrolling near Guam.
The agency tasked with defending all U.S. territories against missile attacks is called the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The MDA is currently building up Guam’s missile defenses by using a layered approach. It aims to create layers of different missile systems and their sensors to quickly sense and destroy missiles and drones coming at the island from all directions. MDA defenses typically use the sensors and missiles of Patriot and THAAD systems, plus the AEGIS systems on U.S. warships situated near the island, plus land-based TPY-2 forward based radars and large radar arrays on Hawaii and on large platforms floating on the Pacific.
The Pentagon was also looking at adding a land-based AEGIS system on the island itself, in addition to the AEGIS systems based on nearby warships. Such a system would comprise an AEGIS sensor array and Mark 41 VLS (Vertical Launch System) cells containing SAM missiles that would be spread out over the island. However, the MDA revealed in 2021 that plans were shifting toward a more novel and distributed architecture, which could include hardened underground facilities. Another option could be to dock decommissioned Ticonderoga-class cruisers with functional AEGIS sensors and missiles in Guam’s harbor.
It is obvious that as China builds up its arsenal of ground-attack missiles aimed at Guam, the U.S. military will have to come up with more numerous and more sophisticated missile systems to defend this very vital island. This will clearly be a massive task, but as one Pentagon official made clear: “We need to defend it. We need to fight for and fight from Guam.”
First image: Israel Defense Forces, Wikimedia Commons
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