Rear Adm. Tilghman Payne seeks the CNMI’s continued engagement and input on four major ongoing military initiatives in the region that he concedes could be sometimes confusing to people, mostly because of overlapping timelines—from a proposed expansion of existing military training areas to the proposed use of Pagan as well as developing a divert airfield on Saipan or Tinian.
Payne is the U.S. Naval Forces Marianas commander and Joint Region Marianas commander.
At the same time, Payne told the Saipan Chamber of Commerce that he sees a “tremendous nexus” between the business community and the military, both of which will benefit from a stable and peaceful region for economic and military purposes.
“The economic factors that contribute to increased tourism all become obsolete or irrelevant if there’s instability, political, or other conflict that permeates the area. Tourist [numbers] go down, dollars go down, if people are arguing and fighting. That’s bad for business,” Payne said, speaking before businesses right after Chamber of Commerce president Alex Sablan shared his views about a positive CNMI economic future.
Payne proceeded to talk about four major ongoing U.S. Department of Defense initiatives that impact the CNMI and are going through the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process.
These include the 1) relocation of some 4,700 U.S. Marines from Okinawa, Japan, to the region, 2) the expansion of the Mariana Islands Training and Testing, 3) the CNMI Joint Military Training that includes the proposed expanded use of Tinian and the use of Pagan, and 4) the Pacific Air Forces divert airfield that could be on Saipan or Tinian.
The multi-year NEPA process, which could be four to five years, costs an average of $3 million.
Payne said throughout the NEPA process, there are a lot of opportunities for consultations between the military and the members of the CNMI community.
“When you see public scoping meetings or other things in the newspaper about a chance to engage or put in your opinion, please take advantage of that. …We can make this a win-win solution,” he said.
On the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam and other areas such as Hawaii and Australia, Payne said there is not much impact on the CNMI except for adding confusion to the other things going on in the region.
The MITT initiative, meanwhile, covers the proposed expansion of training areas, mostly on vast open waters within the Marianas. Payne said the military is getting closer to publishing the final environmental impact statement in late 2014. A record of decision is set for 2015.
The CJMTS, meanwhile, covers the proposed expanded use of Tinian and the use of Pagan for the first time for military live-fire training and other activities, which has drawn strong reactions from residents.
“A lot of people think that’s just going to be the troops that’s coming in from Okinawa and live in Guam…that’s not the case. The CJMTS is a much bigger range; it would improve training and readiness of all our forces in the Pacific so there would be submarines, airplanes, ships, ground forces,” he told Chamber members and guests.
Payne encouraged community members to tell the military their concerns, “help us understand where we can find some mutual ground to benefit the community of the CNMI and enable the military to reach the objective we need, to be trained…so we can maintain peace and stability in the area, the economic environment you all need to grow your business, stability for tourists to keep coming…”
He stressed “transparency, openness, collaboration, and communication” throughout the process.
Surveys and studies are still being conducted on this initiative covering Tinian and Pagan. Consultations are ongoing. A draft EIS will be published in 2015, while a final EIS and record of decision is set for 2016.
For the divert airfield initiative, Payne said the U.S. Air Force is getting ready to publish a final EIS, “and it’s going to say that Saipan is the preferred alternative.”
“That doesn’t mean that the book is closed, that the discussions have ended. That’s not a decision. That’s the Air Force perspective so, again, as we work through the issues associated with this and you have suggestions and ideas, please let us know what they are so we can come up with a win-win situation,” he said.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos and other CNMI leaders and citizens are united in their position to place the divert airfield on Tinian, which for over 30 years has yet to see a major U.S. military development to help its economy. Two-thirds of Tinian lands are under lease to the U.S. military.
During question-and-answer, Payne said the military has changed many of its proposals regarding the divert airfield as it continues to listen to the CNMI. For example, he said, instead of fighter planes and “all kinds of real loud aircraft” planned for use in the original proposal, the revised scope of work is now mostly the “KC 135 tankers.”
Payne added that cost-wise and infrastructure-wise, Saipan remains more attractive for the Air Force versus Tinian. He said the Saipan investment would be some $29 million.
The Chamber’s Sablan, meanwhile, expressed the business group’s support to the Chamber of Commerce and other issues that have affected the CNMI. Sablan said Payne’s departure from the region “will be a true loss for military advocates in the region as Admiral Payne is one of the few region commanders that we have felt was truly interested in listening and finding solutions that all sides could embrace.”