Gov. Eloy S. Inos is seeking a meeting with U.S. Department of Defense officials on its plans to build a divert airfield on Saipan despite the CNMI’s unified stand to have it on Tinian instead.
The facility is intended to accommodate cargo, attack and tanker aircraft, along with up to 700 personnel for periodic divert landings and joint military exercises. This is seen as part of the United States’ plan to bolster island bases against China’s growing might.
Saipan is about 200-km north of Guam, the most substantial U.S. military base in the region.
In case access to the U.S. base in Guam or other Western Pacific airfields is limited, then Saipan could be used by American jets.
A final environmental impact statement on the divert airfield plan was supposed to be released in August.
But both Inos and Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said a possible delay in the release of the final EIS could work both ways for the CNMI—either DoD is now considering the CNMI’s unified position to build the alternate airfield on Tinian or DoD is finding more reasons to move forward with a Saipan facility.
“As it stands right now, they have indicated their preference for Saipan, we have indicated our desire for a facility on Tinian. At some point, we are going to have to sit down and talk,” Inos told Saipan Tribune in a chance interview at the MINA green gala on Saturday night at Fiesta Resort & Spa.
Inos said he plans to meet with military officials himself.
“We are going to let them know we’re interested in doing that. As they go through the planning process, we need to bring these options up and talk and see where we can go that would satisfy both the local community here and the objectives and the goals of the Air Force,” the governor added.
Sablan said the U.S. military would need congressional approval on funding for its divert airfield plan and funding for land acquisition or lease.
Even if funding is made available, Congress could still require that such facility be built on Tinian instead, considering the CNMI’s unified voice on the matter, he said.
Part of DoD’s plan is to lease 33 acres of land on Saipan for 50 years for an alternative airfield in the Marianas for the U.S. Air Force in the event that access to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam is limited or denied.
There are also plans to build additional aircraft parking space, hangars, fuel storage tanks and ammunition storage facilities, as well as other improvements to Saipan’s historic airfield.
The 33-acre Saipan land being eyed for military lease includes historic sites such as the pre-war Japanese airfield in As Lito.
A divert airfield could also accommodate joint and combined humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts.
The U.S. also plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked-up force in the Pacific.
The governor said a two-day regional security roundtable hosted by the Guam-U.S.-Asia Security Alliance, or GUASA, on Thursday and Friday in Guam came at an opportune time as DoD plans to build not only a divert airfield on CNMI soil but also live-fire training ranges on Tinian and Pagan.
The GUASA roundtable brought together some of the nation’s top intelligence analysts and national security experts in a bid to give clarity to calls for rebalancing U.S. interests in the area.
“I was especially interested in anything that might spill over to [the CNMI] and definitely there would be,” Inos said.
Inos said a divert airfield—whether on Tinian or Saipan—would require construction projects, but again, he said the CNMI would prefer that they be built on Tinian.
Two-thirds of Tinian lands are already leased to the U.S. military.