Warplanes: March 27, 2004

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Guams Back. Six B-52H heavy bombers from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota were stationed at Guam last month and will remain there on a rotating basis, highlighting the islands return to importance after a decade of downsizing after the Cold War. The bombers have been moved into place to offset troop withdrawals to support activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Pacific Command is evaluating basing fighter jets and other support planes on Guam since the island is roughly 2400 kilometers from two key Pacific flashpoints, North Korea and the Taiwan Straits. In addition, the U.S. Navy has based two attack submarines at Guam with a third to be home ported there this year and is considering basing an aircraft carrier group there. 

Aircraft and other forces based on Guam during the Cold War were withdrawn during the 90s defense cuts, but a few years ago the Air Force began building up the infrastructure on Andersen Air Force Base, including stockpiling munitions. The Air Force is considering basing a fighter wing, tankers, Global Hawk UAVs, and B-2s on Guam. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, special air-conditioned hangers for the B-2 were positioned there and the Air Force deployed B-1 and B-52s to Guam on a temporary basis last spring to deter North Korea. B-2 crews have flown out of Guam for 30 day Pacific exercises throughout the late '90s. 

Depending on bomber type, payload and flight profile, time from wheels up at Andersen to North Korea or the Taiwan Straits would be around 3-4 hours, so in theory it may be possible to surge two sorties per day per plane in a crisis. Other points within Asia Pacific can be reached "within twelve hours" according to an Air Force spokesperson. In 1972, more than 15,000 people and 150 B-52s lined all available flight line space at Andersen, with bombers flying 729 sorties over North Vietnam in 11 days during operation Linebacker II. In 1996,a pair of B-52s flew out of Andersen to launch cruise missiles at targets in Southern Iraq during Operation Southern Watch. 

Similarly, the Navy has had a large presence in Guam over the years, and served as a home port for ballistic missile subs in the 60s and 70s. Moving attack submarines to Guam effectively doubles mission days because they no longer have to travel from the continental United States to arrive in Pacific patrol areas. 

The conventionally-powered Kitty Hawk is currently home ported in Yokosuka, Japan, but the Japanese have an aversion to nuclear-powered ships and Kitty Hawk will be retired in 2008 and replaced with a nuclear powered Nimitz-class carrier. Guam is 6100 kilometers further west than Hawaii, cutting four to five days travel time for any warship responding to trouble in the region. However, the Navy has commissioned a $1.8 million infrastructure study for basing the carrier wing in Hawaii, so Guam may only represent a contingency option. Doug Mohney

 


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