President Barack Obama signed into law on Thursday (Friday, CNMI time) the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 that provides $29.3 million for the development of a U.S. Air Force divert airfield in the CNMI. The new law also requires the Pentagon to report to Congress by June 25 the feasibility of having a National Guard in the CNMI and American Samoa.
The defense bill also includes almost $495 million in spending for military construction projects in Guam.
“Our economy could definitely use that money,” Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) told Saipan Tribune, referring to the $29.3 million for the development of a divert airfield in the CNMI.
The divert airfield is intended to be an alternative landing base for Air Force planes if Andersen Air Force Base in Guam becomes unavailable because of weather or war.
Sablan worked with the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to place some limits on the Air Force, because there is still a question about where to put this facility: on Tinian or Saipan.
“I think that Northern Marians officials decided long ago that Tinian would be the preferred location for military expansion in the Northern Marianas, but the Air Force has other ideas. So, at my request, the Committee report directs the Air Force to work with the governor to find a mutually agreeable resolution to this siting issue,” Sablan said.
The delegate added that the Air Force is also barred from spending any of the $29.3 million until it reports to Congress on all the alternatives that have been considered, the overall construction requirements, and the cost/benefits of options for the land needed.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos said last week that the CNMI remains unified in its voice to have a divert airfield on Tinian where two-thirds of lands are already leased to the U.S. Department of Defense, instead of Saipan where the U.S. military had planned on placing it.
The governor 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.”
H.R. 3304 or the 2014 NDAA also moves the Commonwealth toward possibly having its own National Guard.
DoD now has 180 days to report to Congress on the feasibility of having the CNMI’s own National Guard, just like Guam and all of the other states and territories, except American Samoa.
“We have 16 of our people deployed with the Guam National Guard—and returning safely home soon. So, clearly, there is an interest. But do we have enough people for a full Guard unit? Do we have the needed infrastructure? Will our local legislature support establishing a Northern Marianas National Guard? These are the questions the report will answer. And we should know by June 25,” Sablan said.
Sablan introduced legislation in 2011 to set up a CNMI unit of the National Guard.
Besides the CNMI-specific provisions, the annual Defense authorization makes some other changes worth noting.
Sablan said military personnel will be getting a 1-percent raise.
“And the new law addresses the issue of sexual assault in the military, which is a problem that seems to be increasing and puts anyone in the armed service—men and women—including our people from the Northern Marianas, at risk. The new law bars commanders from overturning jury convictions in assault cases; and it mandates dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted—all steps in the right direction,” he said.
Obama, in a statement, said the defense measure is a “welcome step” toward closing Guantanamo Bay prison.
“The detention facility at Guantanamo continues to impose significant costs on the American people. I am encouraged that this Act provides the Executive greater flexibility to transfer Guantanamo detainees abroad, and look forward to working with Congress to take the additional steps needed to close the facility,” the president said.