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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Visits Guam: Pentagon will be sensitive to Guam's needs



HAGATNA, Guam (AP) May 31, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert Gates surveyed Guam from the air on Friday and praised the U.S. territory for being "very hospitable to our military forces for a very long time."

Before departing for the rest of an Asian tour, Gates also had a favorable response to preparations for a coming big increase in troops based on the island.

"I'm surprised at the amount of construction that's already under way," Gates said after a helicopter tour over military facilities on the island.

Most military construction awaits completion of a comprehensive environmental impact study of the basing of more troops on the small island territory.

Gates assured local officials the Pentagon will be "sensitive to the needs of the people of Guam" as 7,000 Marines are transferred from Okinawa to Guam within the next six years at an estimated cost of $10.2 billion.

The Finegayan area that stretches for miles along Guam's Route 3 has been identified by military planners as the preferred site for a planned Marine base. Gates said he's confident the goal to relocate U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 will be met.

Construction projects related to the Marines relocation are expected to start in about two years from now, but other military projects already are under way.

This fiscal year which ends June 30, $228 million in Guam construction projects are in the Pentagon budget, including projects for the Air Force, Army, National Guard and construction of schools for children of military families.

At Andersen Air Force Base, up to $2 billion worth of projects are expected to be carried out within the next few years, said Brig. Gen. Doug Owens, commander of the 36th Air Base Wing at Andersen and the bases commander.

"Andersen six years from now will not look anything like this," Owens said, adding that military growth on the island over the next several years will be unprecedented.

He said Guams strategic location, as the tip of U.S. soil in the Asia Pacific, is suited for immediate deployment of U.S. military forces to anywhere in the Asia Pacific region. Planes from Guam can reach any place in East Asia within a few hours.

Mudslides in the Philippines, the recent storm devastation in Myanmar, the China earthquake and other U.S. humanitarian missions involved personnel from Andersen as among the first U.S. responders, he said.

A $42 million facility for the unmanned Global Hawa surveillance aircraft is under construction at Andersen. It's expected to be completed in a year, with aircraft arriving around July 2009, Owens said.

F-15 fighter jets are also coming to Andersen and the base expects to start seeing the rotational deployment of F-22s.

"We are posturing ourselves to be able to accommodate ... Americas next generation of (fighter jets)," the commander said. Andersen will see its Air Force military population grow from 8,000 now to about 9,000 in the next several years, he said.

When Gates arrived on Guam Thursday afternoon, Gov. Felix Camacho asked the secretary to support Guam's request for U.S. financial support for infrastructure improvements and other expenses related to hosting a massive increase in troops.

The local government has put a price tag of $2 billion to $3 billion in civilian projects to accommodate the buildup.