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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, December 6, 2004

Hawai'i part of 'strategic triangle'

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The four-star general in charge of Pacific Air Forces said Guam is growing in importance as a forward base, Alaska has wide-ranging capability, and Hawai'i will be the "keyhole" through which Pacific policy will be funneled.

Gen. Paul V. Hester, chief of the Pacific Air Forces command based at Hickam Air Force Base, told The Advertiser's editorial board that he expects "modest" growth at Hickam.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Hawai'i is the policy piece, so it starts to become very clear that Guam, Hawai'i and Alaska form a very strategic triangle for our forces," said Gen. Paul V. Hester.

Hester, who five months ago took over the Pacific Air Forces command based at Hickam Air Force Base, has B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers in Guam, is looking at sending fighters there, and expects to have Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles on the U.S. territory later in the decade.

Eight C-17 Globemaster III cargo carriers will start arriving at Hickam in January of 2006, but beyond that, Hester does not foresee much more short-term growth here.

"I do not see any downsizing of any mission sets at Hickam, and the C-17 piece is obviously a growth at Hickam," Hester said last week during a meeting with The Advertiser's editorial board.

The only other Air Force increase Hester said he could see for Hawai'i would be the result of consolidating the headquarters of the Fifth Air Force in Yokota, Japan, and the 13th Air Force in Guam to create a new warfighting headquarters with about 150 people, either here or in Guam.

Air Force officials are in final discussions as to which location will be selected.

"So I think that you can see that we will have a modest growth out at Hickam, not a tremendous growth," Hester said.

A worldwide reorganization of U.S. military forces — including moving 70,000 troops out of countries including Germany and South Korea — comes as a new round of base closures is planned and services look for ways to cut costs as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have eaten into their budgets.

But there's also a greater emphasis on the Pacific with the growing power of China, North Korea an uncertain nuclear threat, and the potential for terrorism throughout the region.

Pacific Air Forces has approximately 45,000 military and civilian personnel at nine major locations and numerous smaller ones, primarily in Hawai'i, Alaska, Japan, Guam and South Korea. Approximately 300 fighter and attack aircraft are assigned to the command.

Guam, 3,000 miles west of Hawai'i, and within much closer striking range to Asia, is seeing a military buildup with three attack submarines, six B-52s temporarily at Andersen Air Force Base, and the construction of a $32 million hangar for the B-2 bomber.

Because Guam is a U.S. territory, it is a secure long-term investment, without tenancy problems like those experienced in the Philippines or Okinawa.

"I expect to see, let's say over the next five to 10 years ... our interests and our desire to reposition assets, people, into Guam is going to grow," Hester said.

Hester expects the bombers, moved to Guam to shore up firepower in the Pacific as the United States has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to remain at least late into spring.

He said he will decide whether they should be there semi-permanently on rotations to Guam and then back to Mainland bases for several weeks at a time.

Eight of the Air Force's latest-generation cargo carriers, the C-17, are expected to begin arriving at Hickam — one per month, starting January of 2006.

That will be followed by eight more C-17s at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.

"So the Pacific over the next two years picks up 16 C-17s, and as you know, it is the backbone and growing inventory of our strategic airlift," Hester said.

As part of what's called the "Future Total Force," the Air Force is working to bring together active duty and reserve components, and with the Hickam C-17 basing, "We're on the leading edge of that," Hester said.

Pilots and maintenance crews will include active duty and Hawai'i Air National Guard airmen.

Ground was broken in August on $190 million in construction projects for the C-17s. A total of 405 new active duty positions and about 50 Air Guard positions are being created by the basing.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.