Military leaders call for stronger working relationship with CNMI
The U.S. Department of Defense has selected Tinian as the preferred alternative for a divert airfield project in the CNMI.
This follows years of protracted consultation with the local government, business community, and a environmental review process that prompted the U.S. Air Force to exclude fighter jets from the divert project.
It also comes just two months after Gov. Ralph DLG Torres called on the Air Force to withdraw plans for a divert airfield on Saipan in December. He called the military’s repeated desire to acquire more lands on Saipan as counter to the legal foundations that set up the CNMI’s relationship with the United States, which leased two-thirds of land on Tinian and the entire island of Farallon De Medinilla for defense purposes.
Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, and Joint Region Marianas Rear admiral Bette Bolivar met with Torres yesterday morning to share the news.
A “Record of Decision” formalizing the military’s selection of a preferred alternative is expected in the coming months.
“There is an opportunity for us to have the divert on Tinian,” said Torres in a press conference with Crutchfield and Bolivar. “We are here together to make that happen.”
“Today was a great day for the CNMI and for Tinian,” added Bolivar.
“This is a relationship that is just getting stronger,” Crutchfield said. “We are trying to match concerns with what the [U.S. training] requirements are. This is an example that the two can meet.”
Miranda A.A. Ballentine, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy, also called U.S. Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-Saipan) yesterday in Washington, D.C. to say the Air Force has selected Tinian as the preferred alternative for the divert field.
“I am sure that the Congressman looks forward to learning more once the final environmental impact statement is released and will continue to listen to the voices of his constituents and the Commonwealth government as the details of the Air Force’s plans emerge,” said Sablan’s deputy communications director, Tina Sablan.
Over the last year, U.S. Air Force leaders have heavily advertised a “hybrid” option, to use both Saipan and Tinian airports, which they said would have lessened competing use problems with commercial planes and military tanker craft.
But the Commonwealth Ports Authority, who would have to lease land to the U.S. Air Force on Saipan, has repeatedly reiterated its position that divert be sited on Tinian.
Business leaders worried about the effects on Saipan’s airport also supported the military’s decision.
“That has always been our position,” said Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velman Palacios on the “Tinian-only” alternative.
“We have always maintained that,” Palacios said. “We are glad that they have given Tinian that opportunity.”
“I don’t think the Air Force was doing enough for Saipan,” added businessman Alex Sablan. “We didn’t need more tank farms. We didn’t need an apron and we didn’t need a work facility that they would input.”
“What we needed, in my view, was to harden both runways, so both runways could be used for international flights. That would have been an ultimate benefit for Saipan.
“Ultimately, we agreed that Tinian needed the international airport upgrades, the tank farm, and everything else, so hopefully, there is a joint-use agreement with the tank farm facilities so Tinian itself can welcome international flights,” Sablan said.
Crutchield also disclosed he has received orders from the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to be the single point of contact for Defense.
Bolivar would be DoD’s local representative, but military plans would “be coordinated” through Crutchfield.
He said this would delineate a lot of misinformation.
“You’re the guy. You are going to speak for all of us,” said Crutchfield, a three star general in the Pacific Command, said of the new direction.
“It may be the Air Force needs it. The Marines may need it. But the Pacific Command is the one giving them the orders.”
Military tactical planners from the Marines or the Air Force would still visit to talk with the government but this would make it “not so confusing.”
When pressed, Crutchfield could not say exactly when the Defense Department decided to choose the “Tinian-only” option as the preferred alternative for the divert project.
Still, Crutchfield pointed to one “document in time.”
“It really was your letter,” Crutchfield said, turning to Torres, “that really sparked us.” “I’ve read that letter several times, I’ve almost memorized it.”
Crutchfield said the December letter made clear that the “CNMI has issues” and that it had “to be listened to and addressed.” He also said the fact that the CNMI “was willing to work together” with the military, and extended that “olive branch” spurred the military to “pull this together.”
“The CNMI is a strategic point for us,” Crutchfield said. “We had to weigh the requirements we need to maintain that security and peace and balance with needs of the people here and their culture.”
“When we did that, we realized that Tinian could do both,” Crutchfield said.
Torres administration officials are hopeful the military’s decision will reflect on other pending military proposal like the live-fire artillery, rocket, and mortar ranges they have proposed on Tinian, and the bombing range they have proposed on Pagan.
Administration officials believe the CNMI Covenant restricted military use of Farallon De Medinilla and the two-thirds of land to Tinian.
They are hopeful yesterday’s announcement will reflect what the CNMI’s founding fathers intended would be a joint-service air base on Tinian, meant for shared access with the Tinian people, as spelled out in the legal texts that were signed into effect with the Covenant.
The military’s about-face over 30 years later—to propose a divert airfield on Saipan, use military leased land on Tinian for live-fire artillery and mortar ranges, and lease the entire island of Pagan, among others, have frustrated many in the Commonwealth, a territory who with Guam, has residents that serve in the military at three times higher the rate of those in the U.S. mainland.
While Crutchfield appreciated Torres’ letter, Torres was continuing a position reiterated and stressed by late governor Eloy S. Inos, a position he also stressed over military live-fire ranges, when he called these proposals and “existential threat” counter to the agreements of the Covenant.
Inos passed away after a protracted battle with diabetes last Dec. 29.
“I would like to think that the late governor [Eloy] Inos would very pleased with the decision,” said Office of the Governor attorney Wesley Bogdan, who has advised the late and current governor on military projects, when sought for comment yesterday.
“This is something he wanted,” Bogdan said. “The late governor believed in the CNMI Covenant. He believed in its historical purposes and the appropriate use of CNMI property over on Tinian.”