Marianas Variety

Last updateWed, 19 Dec 2018 12am

Headlines:

     

     

     

     

     

    Monday, December 17, 2018-6:39:54A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

Font Size

Settings

Air Force still mulls Saipan, Tinian alternatives

NOTWITHSTANDING the non-inclusion of U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s proposed language into the National Defense Authorization Act bill for 2015, the U.S. Air Force is still considering both Saipan and Tinian as a location for its divert airfield operations.

United States Pacific Air Forces director of strategy, plans and programs Brig. Gen. Steven L. Basham told Variety, “The Air Force is still considering Saipan and Tinian as alternatives.”

Basham, who was on Saipan last year along with his deputy, Col. Mark Reese, Major Gabriel Young, Defense Coordinating Officer Roy Tsutsui and U.S. Air Force environmental engineer Mark K. Petersen and had a dialogue with Governor Eloy S. Inos, maintains that the U.S. Air Force has not made a decision on which site to build the divert airfield facility.

PACAF Brig. Gen. Steven L. Basham meets with Tinian Mayor Chief of Staff Don Farrell as Col. Mark Reese looks on in the conference room of the administration building in Dec. 2013.PACAF Brig. Gen. Steven L. Basham meets with Tinian Mayor Chief of Staff Don Farrell as Col. Mark Reese looks on in the conference room of the administration building in Dec. 2013.

“No final Air Force decision has been made and we look forward to continued work with CNMI leadership and other agencies to come to an agreement. We appreciate the high interest in the Divert Initiative and in no way see this as an easy decision,” Brig. General Basham told Variety.

Last week, the joined U.S. House and Senate Armed Forces Committees did not include U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s proposed amendment to the bill that would designate the Northern Marianas, and not Saipan, as the expenditure site for $29.3 million in U.S. Air Force divert airfield project funds. The delegate was looking at making it possible to use the funds for other than the Saipan site. This was also consistent with a provision that bars expenditure of these authorized funds until the Air Force reports having considered all alternative sites for the divert airfield to the U.S. Congress.

U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan echoed the sentiment of the Northern Marianas’ leadership that the divert airfield be on Tinian and not on Saipan.

“That is Governor Inos’ position. And I take my direction on this issue from the man who is responsible for the use of public lands in the Commonwealth, the Governor,” he said.

Sablan said he added language to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that said that the $29 million Congress provided for the divert field could be spent anywhere in the Marianas, not just on Saipan.

“That way, the Commonwealth Government and the Air Force could agree on Tinian without having to come back to Congress to change the authorization for the money,” he said.

A U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft lands at the Tinian West Field airport runway for Cope North exercise in February 2013. The CNMI government has been asking the USAF to consider Tinian for its divert field operations.A U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft lands at the Tinian West Field airport runway for Cope North exercise in February 2013. The CNMI government has been asking the USAF to consider Tinian for its divert field operations.

Last Friday, he noted that the U.S. House of Representatives approved his language in June “but now the Air Force has blocked my language in this final version of the bill being voted on today.”

For Sablan, this tells him that the Air Force is completely, 100 percent opposed to even considering Tinian for the divert field.

“They only want Saipan. And they will block any attempt to find an alternative that would work for them and work for the Northern Marianas,” he said.

Sablan pointed out that locating the divert field on Tinian will give the Air Force all the operational capacity they need.

“Tinian will just cost the Air Force more money, that’s all,” he said.

He also said, “So now we know that the Air Force would rather save money than work out a mutually agreeable solution with the Governor of the Northern Marianas.”

When asked about his proposed provision in the NDAA for 2015 not being included, Sablan said, “I think it means we are in for a long, hard road dealing with the military. Does it mean the divert field will be on Saipan? The Governor has made his position clear. The Commonwealth Ports Authority, which is in charge of the Saipan International Airport, has made its position clear. They do not want the divert activity at Saipan International and, CPA says, if the divert field is on Saipan, it will limit our future economic development.”

Sablan said the U.S. Congress has now left the door open “to the Air Force to change its mind. The managers’ statement on the Defense bill says that Congress would ‘welcome’ a proposal from the Air Force to change the location of the project.”

Variety learned that the House bill contained a provision — Section 2304 — that modifies the authorization contained in section 2301(a) of the Military Construction Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (division B of Public Law 113–66; 127 Stat. 992) to allow the Secretary of the Air Force to construct listed facilities at any suitable location in the Northern Mariana Islands.

There is no similar provision in the Senate committee-reported bill.

“The agreement does not include this provision,” said Sablan.

An explanatory note to the House-Senate compromise on the national defense bill referred to as the Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, stated, “The House bill contained a provision (sec. 2304) that would modify the authorization contained in section 2301(a) of the Military Construction Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (division B of Public Law 113–66; 127 Stat. 992) to allow the Secretary of the Air Force to construct listed facilities at any suitable location in the Northern Mariana Islands.”

The joint committee noted that the Senate committee-reported bill contained no similar provision.

The Senate-House agreement does not include this provision.

“We note that the Air Force is currently conducting an environmental impact study to improve an existing airport or airports and associated infrastructure in the Mariana Islands in support of expanding mission requirements and to achieve divert capabilities in the western Pacific,” the joint committee said.

Further, the committee also explained that, if necessary, upon issuing a Record of Decision, the U.S. Congress would welcome a legislative proposal from the Secretary of the Air Force to modify the scope or location for the project as currently authorized by section 2301(a) of the Military Construction Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (division B of Public Law 113-66).

There are four ongoing EIS/OEIS: (1) Marine relocation to Guam; (2) Mariana Islands Training and Testing; (3) CNMI Joint Military Training; and (4) Pacific Air Forces divert field. Three of these are expecting a record of decision by 2015 with the CJMT EIS/OEIS ROD set for mid-2016.

Moreover, Congressman Sablan said, “So, as I said, we in Congress are willing to spend the money on Tinian or anywhere else in the Northern Marianas. And I certainly hope that when the environmental impact study is completed the Air Force and the rest of the Defense Department will think very seriously about what kind of relationship they want to have with the Commonwealth Government and with the people of the Northern Mariana Islands and will choose to find a mutually agreeable solution.”

He underscored how patriotic the people of the Northern Marianas are.

“We voted to become Americans. We have many friends and family in the armed forces. We understand the need for our nation to have a strong, well-trained military. But the U.S. military has to respect our limited land resources and the need for us to continue to grow our economy,” he said.

Sablan vows to continue working for what is best for the people of the Northern Marianas.

The previous year’s drafts of the defense bill stated that no amounts may be obligated or expended for the construction of a maintenance facility, a hazardous cargo pad, or an airport storage facility in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, as authorized by section 2301(a), until the Secretary of the Air Force submits a report to the congressional defense committees that provides (1) a summary of alternatives considered to support divert field operations associated with Andersen Air Force Base; (2) a description of the overall construction requirements to support divert-field operations associated with Andersen Air Force Base and any other alternative considered; and (3) a comparison of the costs and benefits of leasing, as compared to purchasing real estate in fee, that supports the entirety of the divert-field requirement.”

Proposed improvements

According to Pacific Air Forces Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle’s May 2014 correspondence with Governor Eloy S. Inos, General Carlisle said the only improvements to an airfield and port in the CNMI would be (1) a parking apron with operational fuel tanks and a hydrant refueling system; (2) a hazardous cargo pad; (3) an airport bulk fuel storage tank; (4) a maintenance building; and (5) seaport bulk fuel storage tanks.

These, Carlisle said, had been incorporated into the airport layout plan PACAF presented to the CPA, the CNMI Administration, and Historic Preservation Office and FAA.

Meanwhile, Tinian Mayor’s Office Chief of Staff Don Farrell encourages the U.S. Senate’s Armed Forces Committee chairman to look into the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps lay down plan for Tinian.

“We hope the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services will take a close look at the Navy/Marine Corps long term lay down plan for Tinian West Field Airport before they vote on funding a duplicate facility on Saipan just across the channel,” said Farrell.

An aerial view of Tinian West Field.  Photos by Alexie Villegas ZotomayorAn aerial view of Tinian West Field. Photos by Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

FAA, for its part, has not made any decision on the USAF proposal pending submission of an updated airport layout plan from the Commonwealth Ports Authority and completion of the environmental studies.

In an earlier Variety report, FAA Pacific Division Public Affairs Manager Ian Gregor said the U.S. Air Force has not completed its Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed plan. Once it does, the Commonwealth Ports Authority will have to submit an updated Airport Layout Plan, or ALP, to the FAA showing airport facilities that are needed to support the Air Force’s proposal.

FAA will render its decision upon receipt and review of the ALP from CPA.

CPA, through CPA Board Resolution 14-02, expressed its “unequivocal position” and endorses Tinian as the preferred alternative.