By Tom Squitieri, Talk Media News
WASHINGTON — Wake Island’s location put it out of the path of the U.S. forces plan to sweep back in the Pacific against the Japanese in World War II. Wake Island was not considered a strategic location and it was held by Japan for the duration of the war.
Today, Pentagon officials, Chinese, and interested nations in that realm of the Pacific Ocean say otherwise.
Wake Island is one of the quiet undertakings by the Pentagon to create both an alternative and pro-active front line position for strategic action to counter China’s expansion in the South China Sea and beyond.
While still within range of some Chinese missiles, Wake Island offers more security, less civilian interference, and critical options as an offset to Guam — more vulnerable and on the list of first strikes by the Chinese.
Chinese government think tanks cite Wake Island as the key “fallback position” for the U.S. military in the event of a war in the South China Sea. Even discounting Chinese paranoia and overstatement, Beijing’s awareness of Wake is on point, some Pentagon officials say.
As part of the recent change in military doctrine, the Pentagon is working hard to bring unpredictability to its Pacific theater operating model and evolving to a new emphasis on austere expeditionary warfare in the Pacific. This includes the use of small landmasses and staging operations from them, setting up shop at austere locations, quickly developing airfields, adding defenses, and completing the mission before moving on, according to Pentagon reports.
Wake is being revitalized as a center of military operations in the Pacific as part of a new generation layered missile defense system and an upgraded full-fledged military facility, officials said – much of it to play catch-up for years of neglect as an outlier island outpost. The ten-thousand-foot-long runway can accommodate all aircraft currently in United States service.
“The recent construction on Wake Island is consistent with the normal life-cycle maintenance of airfield pavement,” Air Force Capt. Veronica Perez said in an email. “Pacific Air Forces is looking into improving infrastructure throughout the region to meet requirements to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific while strengthening relationships with our allies and partners.”
Described as one of the loneliest atolls in the Pacific, Wake Island is a submerged volcano top, which consists of Wake and two other islets, Wilkes and Peale. Wake Island is 450 miles from the nearest land and approximately 2,300 miles from Honolulu.
Wake Island has always been a geographically important location for military activities, including refueling. The airfield serves between 500 and 600 aircraft annually, according to the Air Force.
It has now taken on increasing importance. Images taken by US-based Planet Labs show how the existing infrastructure on Wake Island is being upgraded and new facilities are rising.
Wake Island was claimed and annexed by the United States in 1899. In the 1930s, with the clarity of Japanese aggressiveness becoming obvious, the military began using Wake Island an advanced naval and airbase that was within striking distance of various Japanese-held territories in the Pacific.
The same logic is being applied now in the face of rising prowess by the Chinese in waters no longer closer to their shores.
By some reports, the uptick started in late 2019 when the Pentagon began “pouring a lot of investment into the infrastructure and the contracted support to that location,” Lt. Col. Rebecca Corbin, commander of the Alaska-based 611th Civil Engineering Squadron, wrote then.
That early work included a new contract that will manage airfield operations, accommodations for workers, and public works projects. The spending includes more than $200 million for facilities operations for what is called“Phase-In Wake Island,” according to USASpending.gov, a federal website that tracks government spending, as well sharing of $470 million for airfield support at three military bases, including Wake Island, and $87 million for unspecified additional improvements.
“The increased activity in recent times is not an illusion,” Corbin told KITV in Hawaii. “There are indeed a lot of changes happening on that small atoll.”
It has continued this year and last. In 2021, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services obligated $2.3 billion to Seqirus Inc., to build a vaccine manufacturing center on Wake.
Other recent expenditures include a $168.8 million contract was given to Fluor Corp on January 10, 2020, for runway construction and enhancement; $526.7 million to Gulf Island Shipyards as of June 30, 2020, for towing, salvaging, and related work; $105 million to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company as of October 16, 2020, harbor construction and dredging, and $83.6 million to Vigor Marine as of October 30, 2020, for depot live maintenance and repair abilities for vessels and ships.
Wake is operated by the U.S. Air Force through Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska and is located within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Already, the Missile Defense Agency uses the atoll to test its missile-interceptor systems designed to take out hostile rockets headed toward the U.S. mainland.
In the event of a war with China, U.S. bases at Guam and Okinawa would face a severe challenge in protecting against hostile missile attacks Wake Island would be the last U.S. outpost in the far Pacific able to get aircraft flying and on the offensive.
During World War Two, Wake Island was an emotional touchstone for Marines, atop their personal list to recapture from the Japanese, who captured it at the start of the war.
It was not to be. The Pacific Island hopping plan did not include Wake and it was held by the Japanese until they chose to surrender on 4 September 1945.
Now Wake Island’s turn to star in the Pacific military plans of the United States appears to have arrived.