WASHINGTON, D.C.—The conference committee ironing out differences between the U.S. House and Senate on the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 has set limits on Air Force development of divert airfield facilities in the Northern Mariana Islands. Statutory language in the bill, H.R. 1960, will bar any expenditure of funds until the Air Force reports to Congress on various alternatives considered for the divert-field operations. In addition, report language accompanying the bill notes the concerns of the governor of the Northern Marianas with regard to whether the operations will be located on the island of Tinian or Saipan and calls for a mutually agreeable resolution to that issue.
“I have been in active discussion with the Armed Services Committee regarding the location of the divert field,” said Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), “and how to make sure that all of our local concerns are addressed by the Air Force.
“The requirements that Congress now seems likely to approve in the Defense Authorization Act will help ensure that all sides of this issue are considered fully.”
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 is expected to be brought to the House floor for a vote this week and to the Senate the week after.
The divert field will provide an alternative in the event that aircraft cannot be landed at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam because of natural disaster or military conflict. Construction of a maintenance facility, a hazardous cargo pad, and an airport storage facility are among the planned developments on either Tinian or Saipan. Both those islands have existing runways capable of handling large military aircraft.
“Governor Inos—and I fully agree with him on this—has expressed the view that Tinian is a preferable location,” Sablan said. “The U.S. already leases two-thirds of the island, so there is ample room for the facilities the Air Force will need.
“Around the Saipan International Airport, on the other hand, there is limited public land, much of which may be needed for commercial development in the future. And with our growing tourism industry the potential for use conflicts between military aircraft and commercial passenger planes could become a problem if Saipan is the site for the divert field. So it seems better management to separate the two activities—military and commercial—on separate islands.”
National Guard feasibility to be studied
The Defense Authorization Act also sets the stage for a Northern Mariana Islands National Guard unit, by directing that the Secretary of Defense conduct a feasibility study and report to Congress within 180 days of the Act being signed in to law.
Currently, men and women from the Northern Marianas serve in the Guam National Guard. The Guam unit has been stationed in Afghanistan and returns to the U.S. for demobilization this month.
Besides deployment to combat, however, National Guard units, which are under the authority of respective state and territorial governors, can be called up to respond to natural disasters or to assist in restoring order.
Sablan introduced legislation, H.R. 2773, in the last Congress that required establishment of a Northern Marianas National Guard. But the Armed Services Committee was unwilling to move forward without an in-depth look at the practicalities.
The feasibility study now likely to be approved will look at issues of cost, existing and needed infrastructure, and whether there is sufficient population in the islands to support a National Guard unit. The Secretary of Defense will also report on whether a local law authorizing an organized militia for the Commonwealth will need to be enacted. (Office of the Delegate)