To counter threats from advanced North Korean and Chinese missiles, the DoD wants to upgrade missile defense systems on the strategically-important island by 2026.
Vice Admiral Jon Hill said he was specifically concerned about North Korea’s Hwasong-12 missile, which has a 4500km range, and China’s self-styled “Guam killer” missile, which has a similar range. Currently, two large American bases in Guam are home to over 7,000 servicemembers.
Admiral Hill said the comprehensive protection would consist of “a number of radars that ensure we meet the requirement, which is persistent 360-degree coverage, right, because of the evolved threat.”
How We Got Here
For centuries, this dot in the South Pacific has been a key military outpost, first for the Spanish and later for the United States.
The Spanish claimed the island in 1565, almost 50 years after Ferdinand Magellan “discovered” it. From then until 1815, Guam and the nearby Marianas Islands were the only Spanish colonial outposts between the Philippines and Latin America. The ruins of a few Spanish military installations from that period are still visible today.
Conflict never arose over the rich galleons which docked in Gaum on the long trip between Manilla and Acapulco. However, the island was no stranger to conflict. In 1670, native Chamorros revolted over the continued expansion of Jesuit missions on the island. After the Spanish brutally suppressed a major revolt in 1683, major fighting ended. However, sporadic violence between colonizers and natives continued. However, by 1688, a series of natural disasters, including a 1688 smallpox outbreak, reduced the Chamorro population from over 50,000 to less than 5,000.
Almost immediately after the Americans took control of the island, after the brief and one-sided Spanish-American War, the Americans began fortifying Guam. A few years later, the island took on commercial significance as well. In the early 1900s, a cable company built a waystation on Guam as part of the first trans-Pacific telegraph. Additionally, PanAm built a seaplane facility as part of the world’s first trans-Pacific air service.
Full-scale war came to the island on December 8, 1941, when the Japanese, as part of their Pearl Harbor campaign, invaded and occupied Guam. The remaining natives were subject to imprisonment, execution, concentration camps, forced labor, family separation, and forced prostitution. Between 5% and 10% of Chammorans died. The U.S. Marines ousted the Japanese in the summer of 1944.
Guam began taking on increased military significance in the 1990s when the DoD transferred assets from Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in Manilla to Guam. As neighborhood bullies China and North Korea continue to threaten the Philippines, Japan, and other American allies in the region, this buildup continues.
Guam and China/North Korea
Guam is about 3,000km from North Korea and China. But that is well within striking distance of the advanced missiles these countries are deploying. However, it is well out of range for most assets. On the flip side, for most aircraft, 3,000km is no more than a hop, skip, and jump. So, if war comes with one of these nations, Guam will be an important firebase.
Conflict with China could erupt over its shaky claims to Taiwan or its equally-tenuous claims to the South China Sea.
At the end of the Chinese Revolution, Mao Tse-Tung forced Chaing Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese army to Taiwan, which is officially the Republic of China. The United States recognized the Taipei regime as the rightful ruler of all of China until Nixon visited mainland China in 1972. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan may have had the opposite effect on Sino-American relations.
Despite the name, control over the South China Sea is hotly disputed. Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and several other nations all have some legitimate claims to the area. The SOC is strategically important because most Middle East oil bound for South Korea and Japan passes through this area. The SOC also has rich commercial fishing and natural gas resources. Therefore, any Chinese effort to assert its claims by force would almost certainly prompt armed conflict.
North Korea is an unpredictable wild card. Its government, which has a stranglehold over the people, makes repressive China look like a free society. That country’s obsession with long-range ballistic missiles makes it a danger to every other country in the region.
Contractors on Guam
Currently, most of the island’s military facilities date back to the Cold War period. Some even date back to World War II. This aging infrastructure is in no shape to accommodate large ships, fast planes, advanced missiles, and other modern military assets.
Additionally, old facilities are bad for morale. For many servicemembers, being deployed in Guam, which is about 2,000 miles from anywhere, is bad enough. If the showers run out of hot water, conditions are almost intolerable.
Thus, most of the private military contractors in Guam are construction contractors. These contractors deal with substantial injury risks every day, such as:
- Electrocution: The heat traveling through a live wire is hotter than the temperature of the sun. If an electrocution victim is lucky, contact with a wire causes severe burns. If the victim is unlucky, the arc blast catapults the victim through space.
- Falls: A fall from as little as four stories above ground is typically fatal. These injuries are the most deadly work-related trauma injuries, and they are also the easiest ones to prevent. Proper safety equipment and training almost eliminate the risk.
- Caught Between: At busy and noisy construction sites, workers often get “caught between” a fixed object, like a retaining wall, and a large commercial vehicle, like a dump truck. These encounters always end badly for workers.
- Struck By: These injuries are a lot like falls. If Tony drops a hammer on his toe, he might need little more than first aid. If Tony drops a hammer from four or five stories up and it hits Jerry, more than likely Jerry will not survive.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls these incidents the “Fatal Four.” Eliminating them, according to OSHA, would eliminate most fatal construction site injuries.895
Even if these victims survive, they face huge medical bills. Transportation expenses might exceed hospital expenses. The medical facilities in Guam are not much more than emergency care clinics. Injured contractors are eligible for Defense Base Act benefits that pay all reasonably necessary medical expenses. These benefits include not only transportation and hospitalization, but also follow-up care, medical devices, prescription drugs, and physical or occupational therapy.
For more information about DEB eligibility, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.