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Friday, April 25, 2014

Defense bill with limits on NMI divert airfield heads to Obama

It is now up to President Barack Obama to set limits on the U.S. Air Force’s development of divert airfield in the CNMI, after the U.S. Senate passed on Thursday (Friday, CNMI time) the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

As early as November, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said he and the Inos administration were looking at placing restrictions on the development of a divert airfield in the CNMI.

The CNMI is united in its stand to place a divert airfield on Tinian where two-thirds of lands are already under lease to the U.S. Department of Defense, instead of Saipan where the U.S. military has planned on placing it.

Sablan said the NDAA bars expenditure of $29.3 million “allotted for construction of maintenance and storage buildings and a hazardous cargo pad, until the Air Force reports on all the alternatives considered for the divert field.”

He said Congress expects “the Secretary of the Air Force to consult with the governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands regarding the location of projects to support divert field operations with the goal of achieving a mutually agreeable solution.”

Sablan earlier said the CNMI does not want to lose the divert airfield project to another place such as Palau or the Philippines but it seeks conditions for the U.S. military if it insists on placing the alternative airfield on Saipan instead of Tinian.

DoD has delayed the release of an environmental impact statement and Record of Decision on the proposed divert airfield that the U.S. Air Force can use in the event that access to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam is limited or denied.

Gov. Eloy S. Inos earlier told the Air Force that its request to lease 33 acres of land on Saipan for the next 50 years “is quite an undesirable conclusion as it would impede future commercial development in the area.”

Meanwhile, the NDAA, now up for presidential review and action, also requires DoD to report within 180 days on the feasibility of establishing a National Guard unit for the CNMI, a project that Sablan has been working on since 2011.

Another important component of the bill is a new sexual assault policy for the military. The bill provides legal counsel for victims, eliminates the statute of limitation for sexual assault-related courts-martial, requires civilian review of cases not prosecuted, and stipulates dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

“Military commanders are stripped of their ability to overturn jury convictions; and retaliation against victims will carry criminal penalties. I strongly support efforts to combat sexual assaults in the military and in civilian life,” Sablan added.

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