The Evolving U.S. Military Presence on Guam

Posted on June 15, 2017
The island of Guam located in the Pacific Ocean has been a U.S. territory since 1898. Over the years, the United States has maintained a military presence on the island to support and defend its interests in the western Pacific Ocean. Starting around 2022, the Department of Defense expects to further grow that presence by moving approximately 4,100 Marines from Japan to Guam. But will Guam be ready? Today’s WatchBlog explores the past and future of U.S. military presence on Guam. A long military history Guam has been home to many different military units over the past 60 years—it was especially active during the Vietnam War as a waystation for U.S. bombers. Today, at least 16,400 military members and their dependents are stationed on Guam, most of whom work at the U.S. Naval Base Guam at Apra Harbor or at Andersen Air Force Base.

Figure 1: Selected DOD Facilities on Guam(Excerpted from GAO-14-82)

Going forward DOD is preparing to construct the infrastructure it needs to support the Marines that will be relocated. However, we’ve found a number of risks to DOD’s construction costs and schedules.
  • Construction labor shortage: DOD needs 2,800 foreign laborers to help with construction, and Guam relies on the H-2B visa program to fill these positions. However, approval rates for these visas decreased in 2016. Military and government of Guam officials told us that construction contractors have had trouble getting approvals for these visas to fill skilled labor positions.
  • Explosive-ordnance detection: Whenever construction occurs on Guam, DOD must first look for potential explosive ordnance buried underground from prior conflicts. When contractors scan for ordnance, they have to check out everything that sets off the detectors—including tin cans and scrap metal. This can significantly delay construction projects. For example, the Navy experienced a $4.9-million cost increase and a 10-month delay for a utilities project because the contractor found more of this non-ordnance material than predicted in the initial contract.

Figure 8: Explosive-Ordnance Detection and Removal at a Utilities Project in Guam(Excerpted from GAO-17-415)

  • Cultural-artifact discovery and preservation: Digging up the island can unearth pieces of its history and these cultural artifacts must be preserved. Although there have been efforts to streamline the discovery and preservation process, it can be lengthy. For example, one construction project could require DOD to preserve artifacts on 21 historically significant sites—which may result in additional costs and delays. Yet DOD has not fully planned for such delays.

Figure 9: Cultural Artifacts Discovered during Construction at Various Department of Defense Sites, Guam(Excerpted from GAO-17-415)

  • Endangered-species protection: Guam is also home to endangered species. To help ensure construction doesn’t disturb them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service develops protection plans. However, these plans take time to produce. For example, there were delays after discovering endangered orchid and butterfly species on the sites of two DOD construction projects. But again, DOD did not fully consider such delays in its planning.
To address these types of cost and schedule risks, we recommended that DOD complete a Risk Management Plan for its buildup in Guam. To find out more, check out our full report.