Despite an end-of-the-month congressional deadline, the Secretary of the Navy told a Senate committee Thursday he does not know whether a contractor has been hired yet to conduct an independent review of plans to relocate thousands of Marines from Japan to Guam.
Secretary Ray Mabus’ comment caused a sharp rebuke from Senate Armed Services Committee members, who accused the Department of Defense of delaying the review and warned that no money would be spent on the massive military project until the mandated study is completed. The military realignment plan could cost U.S. taxpayers about $14 billion just for initial construction of bases on Guam, and the Senate has warned that the project might be unaffordable and unrealistic.
In its annual defense authorization act, Congress froze all funding for the project, calling for the military to conduct an independent review this year of the current plan and to explore alternative options, such as moving Marine Corps forces onto Air Force bases in the Pacific.
“It has now been two and a half months (since Congress passed a law requiring the study). How long does it take to let a contract to get an independent assessment, Mr. Secretary?” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Mabus during a public hearing. “Until we get that assessment, there should be no concrete plans made by the secretary of defense or the Defense Department.”
The delay is causing “intense frustration” among lawmakers because the review is needed to “get this redeployment issue into some kind of sanity,” McCain said.
Congress has mandated an April 1 deadline for the initial study and also has required the department to present a final report on the issue to lawmakers by June as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed at the end of December.
“We are not going to continue to let you slow walk us on this issue,” McCain said.
Mabus said the contracting of the study is not under his purview.
“My understanding is that the Department of Defense has selected someone,” he said. “I don’t know if the contract has been signed to do that.”
U.S. and Japan plans now call for moving about 4,700 Marines permanently from Okinawa to Guam and relocating the controversial Futenma air station from an urban area of the island to a newly built base farther north. But both governments are now renegotiating that 2006 agreement , which has been sidetracked for years by delays, local opposition and cost increases.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and fellow senators including McCain and Jim Webb, D-Va., have said they want the military to give serious consideration to other options, such as rotating Marines through the region, operating joint bases with other countries, and moving Marine Corps air operations to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, which is the largest Air Force base in this part of the world.
“We are not attempting to kill the program,” Webb said. “We are trying to un-stick it.”
The uncertainty over the military plans is causing deep anxiety on Guam and also in Japan, where the relocation of Futenma is one of the top political issues facing the country, Webb said.
“I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is that, first of all, the law be obeyed and second of all that we reach an endpoint on this for the good of our strategic posture in that part of the world, and also for our relations with the Japanese and the people of Guam,” he said.