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US Says It Wants Kwajalein Missile Test Range For 40 More Years

29 May 2002

The United States government wants a prized central Pacific missile defense testing range for another 40 years, but says it isn't willing to pay more than the current lease fees to test missiles through 2043, an official said in a letter released Wednesday.

In response to a Marshall Islands request to identify its future need for the Kwajalein missile range, State Department negotiator Albert Short said the US "would not object to an extension" of the current lease for seven years beyond its current 2016 termination, with an option for an additional 20 years.

The seven year extension would bring the pact into line with a 20-year funding deal with the Marshall Islands that is under negotiation. Short said any extension is dependent on the Marshall Islands giving the US the option to use the missile test range until 2043.

Kwajalein landowners also want to extend the lease, but have demanded nearly 2.0 billion dollars for 50-year use of Kwajalein. The US government currently pays about 13.2 million dollars annually for use of Kwajalein.

Marshall Islands negotiator Robert Muller said the term of any lease should be negotiated first.

"The significance is not in what is being offered by the US, but in the fact that the US is making an offer for (long-term use of) Kwajalein," he said.

Short's reply is the first formal indication from the US of its desire to maintain its missile testing presence well beyond the current lease that expires in 2016.

US officials are frequently quoted as saying that the 4.0 billion dollar Kwajalein base -- a center of missile defense testing since the mid-1960s, and a linchpin in President George W. Bush's missile defense plans -- is irreplaceable and unique.

But with sensitive negotiations in progress on future funding for the Marshall Islands, US officials have been circumspect about their future needs at Kwajalein -- until Short's letter of May 21 to Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Gerald Zackios.

"While the US cannot re-negotiate the military use and operating rights agreement, we would not object to an extension of the (agreement) through fiscal year 2023, to run coterminus with the new 20-year period of annual grant assistance," Short said, provided the Marshall Islands also gave it a 20-year option to renew in 2023.

"Due to the rapid pace of technological change inherent in the missile defense program and the administration's decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, and the restructuring of our missile defense program, it is not possible for the department of defense to predict now how long (Kwajalein) will be needed beyond 2016," Short said.

But his offer of an extension through 2043 gives an indication that the Pentagon wants to continue using Kwajalein as a hub for missile defense for the foreseeable future.

The US, Short said, is prepared to provide the Marshall Islands with compensation for use of the missile range through 2043 at the current rental rate, adjusted for inflation each year.

He said the seven-year extension and the 20-year option to renew through 2043 are "inseparable".

Muller indicated that the US proposal is being circulated to Kwajalein leaders for their review.

Published by AFP, Majuro 2002 Agence France-Presse.

Marshall Islands

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