2026 target for INDOPACOM's No. 1 priority, Guam Defense System, appears to be slipping

By Jason Sherman / December 5, 2021

SIMI VALLEY, CA -- The gambit to deliver Guam a new air and missile defense system by 2026 -- U.S. Indo-Pacific Command's No. 1 unfunded priority which the Pentagon is still working to define and Congress has not fully funded -- appears no longer achievable, with a new target date set to be identified in the fiscal year 2023 budget request.

Adm. John Aquilino, head of INDOPACOM, backed off the explicit 2026 target date -- which his predecessor repeatedly said was a requirement in order to defend the Western Pacific U.S. territory from advanced threats -- during comments with reporters on the sidelines of the Reagan National Defense Forum here.

“My requirements are to deliver defensive capability for Guam in the near term,” Aquilino said Nov. 4. “Now what year that is, we'll see how it's described” in the fiscal year 2023 budget proposal that is currently being finalized inside the Defense Department to be sent to Congress in February, he said.

Asked if the 2026 target set by then-Adm. Phil Davidson for more than two years during his leadership at INDOPACOM was still viable, Aquilino said: “The desire is to get a near-term defensive capability in there as soon as possible. And I’m waiting to see what the building thinks it can deliver and when.”

In September, the Pentagon sent Congress an “Architecture Study on the Integrated Air and Missile Defense of Guam” -- a report required by law that was to identify existing deployed land- and sea-based air and missile defense programs of record and sketch a plan for how these might be used as either standalone systems or integrated on Guam by 2025.

Davidson advocated for a Guam Defense System before retiring last spring, calling for an Aegis Ashore system armed with Standard Missile-3 and -6 interceptors.

Sources say this requirement -- the top priority of the Pacific Defense Initiative -- became a proxy for a broader debate over how to address advanced air and missile defense vulnerabilities forecasted on Guam in the middle of this decade and how to allocate risk and the value of defending the island.

Aquilino suggested that his views on a Guam Defense System may not be identical to Davidson’s.

“My requirements have been identified,” the four-star admiral said. “They started, as you know, back with Adm. Davidson and we'll see what comes out of that. Again, I've made the case with regard my view. Adm. Davidson had a view. I've given my view on why I believe it's important. And we'll see what comes out.”

Since 2013, Guam has been defended on land by a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery, which cannot provide 360-degree coverage and is not effective against maneuvering hypersonic threats. In addition, Aegis warships equipped with ballistic missile defense capabilities patrol in waters to defend Guam. Proponents of a Guam Defense System have argued it would free up Aegis ships to perform other missions in the region. Critics of the proposed system question the value of a land-based system that could be overwhelmed by advanced ballistic, hypersonic and cruise missiles during the opening hours of a fight against China.

Guam, located between Hawaii and the Philippines, is the western-most U.S. territory.

The 210-square-mile island hosts Anderson Air Force Base, a location used by the bomber force, and Naval Base Guam, which can accommodate all ships in the Navy's fleet. In addition, the Marine Corps plans to realign some forces from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam.

“The strategic importance of Guam for the region is critical,” Aquilino said. “It is part of the U.S. homeland; 170,000 U.S. citizens and a whole bunch of U.S. military capability [is] forward-stationed and expected to go through Guam. So previously, it's been talked about we have to fight for Guam and protect Guam. So, it's critical for the region.”