KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Marshall Islands —
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a visit here today to highlight Kwajalein’s importance to the U.S. missile defense and space programs.
The atoll, located more than 2,000 miles southwest of Honolulu, is home to the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll/Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
The U.S. rebalance to the Pacific is a matter of "national imperative," Dempsey told a town hall audience at an open-air church with about 200 people in attendance. The general’s wife, Deanie, was also on-hand to address family-member concerns and answer questions.
The U.S. rebalance to the Pacific region is important because 7 of the 9 billion people in the world are projected to be living in the arc from India to China by 2050, Dempsey said. Where the majority of the planet’s people live is where the issues -- economic, demographic, security, climate change -- will be, he said.
Key U.S. Missile Defense, Space Program Site
In addition, the chairman highlighted the importance of the efforts of the 1,000 people who serve on Kwajalein in support of key U.S. missile defense and space programs.
Eleven of the 100 islands comprising the atoll are leased by the United States from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Radar, optics, telemetry, and communications equipment on eight islands provide instrumentation for ballistic missile and missile interceptor testing and space operations support.
"The future of space … is contested. It's congested and it's becoming increasingly competitive," Dempsey said. "That's one of those things where if we don't get ahead of it, you're not going to catch up once you fall behind."
The chairman answered questions on variety of topics. The town hall participants, mostly civilian employees, were concerned about the defense budget, health care, the rebalance to the Pacific, and the U.S. response to violent extremism.
The commander of U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll said the people on Kwajalein are uniquely familiar with the chairman and his spouse because of their greetings over the American Forces Network.
"We all spent a moment or so with the Dempseys, whether they knew it or not, as they enter our homes via AFN and wish us all a happy holiday," said Army Col. Nestor Sadler, drawing laughter from the crowd.
The visit of the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to this far-flung atoll underscores just how critical Kwajalein is to national security, the colonel said.
"If we're not concerned about what our adversaries are putting in space, and if we're not concerned what is currently in space, then Kwajalein isn't important, but I have yet to find anyone who thinks we shouldn't be concerned," Sadler said.
Kwajalein is the world's premier range and test site for intercontinental ballistic missiles and space operations support, he said.
"This is very important. There are a lot of things that we do here because of where we're located, that we can't do anywhere else in the world," he said.
The U.S. military has a great relationship with the Marshallese people and their government, Sadler said. "Without the Marshallese workforce, we would not be successful here on Kwajalein," he said.
The U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands, Thomas Hart Armbruster, said the U.S. is invested in the relationship with the Marshallese.
The United States provides about $75 million a year in compact assistance, education, health and infrastructure to the Marshall Islands, he said. That aid runs out in fiscal year 2023, he said, so that is why the base is so important, because that lease runs through 2066.
"So it's really a partnership between the U.S. and the RMI that's going to last a lifetime, basically," he said.
"We're responsible for their defense and they've played a huge role in the history of the U.S. -- from World War II when Marshallese scouts were here working with our forces," Armbruster said.
During the Battle of Kwajalein the United States wrested control of the atoll from Japan during World War II. The Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1983 and gained independence in 1986. The two countries negotiated an Amended Compact that entered into force in 2004.