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Andersen Air Force Base: America's 'spear' in the Pacific

Posted August 23

Andersen Air Force Base is deceptively quiet.

The calm is at times punctuated by the screaming of a B-1B Bomber flying off into the skies above the tiny US territory of Guam, but the roars don't come as often as expected.

This seemingly sleepy base, which is only hosting bombers, refueling tankers and large jets, is one of two crucial US military installations on Guam, the closest US territory to North Korea.

Today it's referred to as "the tip of the spear" of the US' military capabilities in the Pacific, and its presence here is one of the reasons why it's become a potential target for North Korea.

On August 15, North Korean state media said the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, had been presented with plans to launch missiles towards the island.

The report was accompanied with an image of Kim reviewing the plans with senior military figures, and a map that appears to show runways at Andersen Air Force Base in the background.

That was followed by new images published in state media Wednesday, showing Kim inspecting the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Sciences.

"This is the North Koreans showing us, or at least portraying, that their solid-fuel missile program is improving at a steady rate," David Schmerler, research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told CNN.

The photos, published by KCNA, accompanied a report that said Kim had instructed the institute to produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips.

Security at Andersen is typically been tight, never more so than in recent weeks.

But CNN was granted rare access to the base, along with a handful of other international media outlets.

B-1B bombers and KC-135s

Reporters filed on to a big white bus with little air conditioning shortly after 7 a.m. one day last week.

Two types of planes were on display on the runway: the B-1B bomber and the KC-135.

Nicknamed "The Bone," the B-1B is a long-range, multi-mission conventional bomber often deployed in so-called "show of force" operations in response to North Korean provocations.

The US conducted one such mission involving the bombers following Pyongyang's successful July 4 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

A sortie of B-1B bombers flew over the Korean Peninsula two weeks ago from Andersen as part of the US Air Force's "continuous bomber presence," according to a Pacific Air Forces spokesman.

The bombers were joined by Japanese and South Korean aircraft during their mission.

That flight contributed to the recent set of hostile rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington.

KCNA described the mission as such: "The air pirates of Guam again appeared in the sky above South Korea to stage a mad-cap drill simulating an actual war."

Analysts say the flyovers anger the North Koreans because they see them as offensive, not defensive, maneuvers in preparation for war.

During the Korean War of 1950-1953, American fighter jets dropped an estimated 625,000 tons of bombs on North Korea.

That legacy of destruction from above lives on in the North Korean psyche -- and helps feed the Kim family's narrative that the Americans are preparing for another invasion.

The bombers are approximately 190,000 pounds (86,183 kilograms) and 146 feet (44.5 meters) long, according to the Air Force, and can fly faster than 900 miles per hour, or Mach 1.2 at sea level.

Those who fly the B-1B bomber love the plane because it's fast, can fly low and for a long time, one pilot, who was not allowed to give his name for security reasons, told CNN.

Andersen Air Force Base describes it as a "highly versatile, multi-mission weapon system."

It carries "the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the Air Force inventory."

Each B-1B bomber costs about $317 million.

The KC-135, which can refuel the B-1B mid-flight, was the other plane on show for the media. The aircraft has been in service for more than 50 years and, depending on fuel storage, can carry 83,000 pounds of cargo, the Air Force says.

It has a wingspan of about 130 feet (40 meters) and is a bit longer than 136 feet long (about 42 meters).

The KC-135 has a maximum takeoff weight of 322,500 pounds (146,285 kilograms) and flies at about 530 miles per hour.

A pilot who flies the KC-135, who CNN was also not allowed to name, likened the plane to a gas station in the sky. It holds more than 200,000 pounds of gas, or about 35,000 gallons, the pilot said.

He explained that refueling the B-1B mid-flight is a tricky maneuver, but much more so for the bomber pilot rather than the KC-135, who just needs to stay still and avoid turbulence.

All in all, the operation takes about 15 minutes, he said.

All of this equipment is meant to help fulfill the base's mission -- to be ready to "fight tonight," said US Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Occhiuzzo.

"We are ready for anything. We don't train for a specific threat, we don't train for a specific scenario. But we are training always," Occhiuzzo told local media at the base last week.

A military island

Though Andersen is a military installation, it's home to more than 7,000 people and operates much like any other small autonomous city.

It's one of two military installations -- the other is a naval base -- that cast a large shadow over the island.

In Guam the military influence is omnipresent.

Soldiers in fatigues can be seen checking in and out of the island's many hotels. Local bars honor veterans on the walls.

Massive cargo planes can be seen flying low near tourist beaches while snorkelers heads bob in the water, spying magnificent coral through the crystal-clear waters.

To many of the island's residents, the military's large footprint offers comfort -- they're protected.

The military owns about a third of the island, and about 13,000 people are either in the military or are family of service members.

The majority of the men and women working on Anderson live in Guam with their families, said Occhiuzzo.

"I live here, my wife lives here, my two daughters live here, my son lives here. We obviously have a vested interest in here. And we feel safe here right now, and that's what this continuous bomber presence does -- it assures our allies and deters our adversaries," Occhiuzzo said.

But others worry that the military's presence makes it an unwarranted focus for US adversaries.

"Are they really here to protect the people and the island of Guam, or are they really here to sort of protect their interests and assert themselves in our region," local independence activist Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero said.

"Does that really make us safer or does it make us more of a target?"

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