Battling the Tyranny of Distance in Homeland Defense: WMD Response in United States Indo-Pacific Command

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POSTED:  June 9, 2021

By: John Clements

Homeland Defense in the Pacific

Of all the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs), two have a Homeland Defense mission. The United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) has the lion’s share of the responsibility. Their area of responsibility (AOR) covers the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, and the U.S. Caribbean territories. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) has the other Homeland Defense mission and is responsible for Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Island (CNMI), and several uninhabited islands. Additionally, three nations in a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States fall under the Homeland Defense mission in the Pacific—The Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The distance from the Hawaiian Island of Oahu to Guam is 3,800 miles. This is 1,400 miles more than the distance from Los Angeles to New York. The distance from Oahu to the Los Angeles on the mainland is 2,600 miles. These vast distances create a problem set known to USINDOPACOM as “The Tyranny of Distance,” which applies to all operations in their AOR.

Figure 1 shows a map of Oceania, with U.S. possessions outlined and distances from other U.S. territories overlayed [1].

Figure 1:  USINDOPACOM Homeland Defense AOR [1].

The tyranny of distance provides unique challenges in terms of Homeland Defense and a response to an event involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Any large-scale event is likely to overwhelm local resources very quickly. Guam boasts a relatively large military footprint, particularly at Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam (Figure 2). These forces are primarily focused on conventional military threats and cooperation with allies and partners. The bases themselves provide logistical facilities, which would be critical to any response both on Guam and the nearby CNMI. Guam possesses a National Guard unit with a Civil Support Team (CST) that provides a WMD capability. However, the CST is comprised of only 22 Guardsmen. With unique expertise and detection capabilities, a significant incident would quickly outstrip their resources. Some members of the Guam National Guard hail from CNMI, which has no National Guard of its own.

Figure 2:  Guam (Left) Is Just South of the Northern Mariana Islands (Right) [2].

American Samoa lies in the South Pacific, much closer to Australia and New Zealand than to Hawaii or the Continental United States.  Tutuila island hosts the capital, Pago Pago, and the largest airport and only seaport in American Samoa (Figure 3). If an attack prevented landing at Pago Pago, nearby islands have only small airfields and no ports. This will require either assistance from neighbors, such as Samoa, or ship-based, rotary wing aircraft. American Samoa lacks a National Guard and has no CST.

Figure 3:  Tutuila Island, With American Samoa Inset [2].

The sovereign nations of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia are in a Compact of Free Association with the United States (Figures 4 and 5). Their defense is the responsibility of the United States. As a result, these nations find themselves in a unique place as sovereign nations which fall under the Homeland Defense umbrella and would require U.S. assistance during a large-scale WMD attack.

Figure 4:  Palau (Left) and the Federated States of Micronesia (Right) [2].

Figure 5:  Republic of the Marshall Islands [2].

Weapons of Mass Destruction

A WMD is defined by U.S. law as any of the following:

  • A destructive device, such as an explosive or incendiary bomb, rocket, or grenade;
  • A weapon that is designed to cause death or serious injury through toxic or poisonous chemicals;
  • A weapon that contains a biological agent or toxin; or
  • A weapon that is designed to release dangerous levels of radiation or radioactivity [3].

Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats pose some of the most difficult challenges regarding detection, remediation, disposal, protection of the population, and logistical needs. Unlike a conventional explosive device, CBRN threats may persist in the affected area for hours, days, weeks, and in the case of certain isotopes, thousands of years [4]. We will focus on the unique challenges posed by CBRN threats.

A major limitation for any adversary is the delivery method. An explosive means of dispersing a CBRN agent may destroy the agent, particularly a chemical or biological threat. Other dispersal methods, such as sprayers and human vectors, are dangerous for the personnel involved. The viscosity of many chemical agents hinders spraying. However, adversaries are continually refining methods of producing and delivering chemical and biological agents. There is also a danger of being covertly supplied by a state actor with developed capabilities.

Geography and Infrastructure

The vast distances across the Pacific Ocean pose difficulties for any response effort. A commercial flight from Honolulu, HI, to Hagåtña, Guam, is nearly 8 hours. Supplies must be gathered, packaged, and loaded onto any flight, and then the reverse done on the receiving end. On the receiving end, there must be representatives from the local government ready to identify the needs of the community so that the response is tailored to the actual need. This will require local responders to be trained on incident command procedures.

Each island has a unique situation regarding transportation to and from the island.  Table 1 lists several inhabited islands and particular attributes of that island. Focusing on the logistical issues, this table provides data on seaports, airports, and medical facilities. Many islands have no actual medical facilities but are served by a clinic. Citizens of many islands must be evacuated to higher echelons of care even for nonlife-threatening issues because the local hospital or clinic lacks something as commonplace as an X-ray machine.

Table 1:  Air and Seaports in the Pacific [5–7]

Island Airport

(IATA Code)

Max Runway Length (ft) Seaport Seaport Size Island Population (Estimate) Area in sq mi (sq km) Total Hospital Beds
Tutuila, AS Pago Pago-Tafuna Int’l (PPG) 10,000 Pago Pago Harbor Small <50,000 142 (55) 128
Ofu and Olosega, AS Ofu (OFU) 2,000 None N/A 500 2 (5.2) Clinic space only
Aunu’u, AS None N/A None N/A 430 .59 (1.5) None
Tau, AS Fitiuta Airport (FTI) 3,190 None N/A 730 17 (44)
Saipan, CNMI Saipan Int’l Airport (SPN) 8,700 Saipan Small 47,500 46 (119) 86
Tinian, CNMI Tinian Int’l Airport (TIQ) 8,600 Tinian Very small 3,540 39 (101) 5 (clinic)
Rota, CNMI Rota Int’l Airport (ROP) 6,000 Rota Very small 2,500 33 (85) 10 (clinic)
Guam Andersen AFB (UAM)

Antonio B. Won Pat Int’l (GUM)




Apra Harbor Medium 167,000 210 (540) 198 (Guam Memorial Hospital)

42 (Naval Hospital Guam)

Oahu, HI Honolulu Int’l (HNL)

Dillingham Airfield (HDH)





Honolulu Medium 976,000 597 (1545) >1,600 (not including military hospitals)
Hawaii, HI (The Big Island) Kona Int’l (KOA)

Hilo Int’l Airport (ITO)




Hilo Medium 187,000 4,028 (10,430) 225
Maui, HI Kahalui Airport 6,995 Kahului Very small 167,400 727 (1,883) 219
Kauai, HI Lihue Airport (LIH) 6,500 Nawiliwili Bay Small 7,300 562 (1,456) 72
Moloka’I, HI Moloka’I Int’l Airport (MKK) 4,494 Kaunakakai Harbor Very small 7,300 260 (670) 15
Lanai, HI Lanai Airport 5,001 Kaunalapau Harbor Very small 3,100 141 (364) 14
Ni’ihau, HI None None 170 70 (180) None
Oreor, Ngerekebesang, Babelthuap, and Malakal Islands (connected by a road), PU Babelthuap Airport (ROR) 7,200 Malakal Harbor Very small 16,700 (combined) 128 (331) 80
Peleliu, PU Peleliu Airport (C23) 6,000 None N/A 500 5 (13) 0
Angaur, PU Angaur Airstrip (ANG) 7,000 None N/A 130 3 (8) 0
Yap Main Islands, FSM Yap International Airport (TYA) 6,000 Colonia Very small 11,400 39 (100)
Pohnpei, FSM Pohnpei Int’l Airport (TPN) 6,600 Pohnpei Harbor Small 36,200 129 (334)
Kosrae, RMI Kosrae Airport (TSA) 5,752 Lele Harbor Very small 6,600 43 (111)
Chuuk Lagoona, RMI Chuuk Int’l Airport (TKK) 6,013 Moen Very small 36,100 36 (93) 120
Majuro, RMI Amata Kabua Int’l Airport (KMJ) 7,913 Majuro Atoll Very small 27,800 3.75 (9.7) 101
Kwajalein, RMI Bucholz Army Airfield (KWA) 6,668 Kwajalein Very small 11,400 6.33 (16.4) 45
aChuuk Lagoon is several islands/islets surrounding a lagoon.

Notes:  IATA = International Air Transport Association, AS = American Samoa, CNMI = Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, HI = Hawaii, PU = Palau, FSM = Federated States of Micronesia, and RMI = Republic of the Marshall Islands.


Emergency material stockpiles will deplete quickly. Critically, many of the islands will need to have additional materials brought to them by air.  The length of the runway is one marker for the quantity of supplies which could be delivered by air. Certainly, other aspects must be considered, such as maintenance facilities, equipment for off-load and transport, and fuel storage. The ports of most islands are listed as “small” or “very small” according to the World Port Index. Only the largest three islands with a port are listed as “medium.” Despite their reliance on the sea, no islands have a “large” port. This will limit the size and type of ship that can be accommodated.  The number of hospital beds available is one indicator of an area’s ability to respond to a WMD crisis. The smaller islands are only served by clinics with few or no bedspaces.

Population figures only tell part of the story. Tourism is the primary commercial activity on virtually every island. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Oahu sees around a half million tourists each month, and Maui sees a quarter million [8]. CNMI saw an average of 40,000 tourists each month in 2019 [9]. With a population of under 60,000, CNMI could easily have a scenario where 20–25% of the people on the island are tourists. Pacific islands draw most of their tourism from Asia. Language barriers complicate the response further in an already confusing and chaotic time.

The trade winds, which normally blow east-to-west in the Northern Hemisphere, are one major benefit of the islands.  Any release of radiation, chemicals, or an airborne biological hazard such as anthrax would most likely be blown out to sea relatively quickly [10].

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

PPE will be needed for responders and civilians alike.  Any PPE stored locally will be depleted quickly. It would be impossible to expect each island to have enough PPE available for each different type of incident. Breathing protection is critical to combat all CBRN weapons.

Many of the islands are underequipped. For example, Palau has received several grants for fire trucks and other emergency equipment from Japan [11].  These relatively small grants have significantly enhanced Palauan response capabilities. Even with these grants, Palau has little PPE stocks to protect its first responders or citizens.

Prepositioned stocks are critical to any WMD response. Protective equipment, medical supplies, clean water, and fuel must be quickly accessible to responders.  There are virtually no propositioned stocks on any of the referenced islands except for Guam and Oahu.  Most of the stockpiled equipment will focus on consequence management and protective equipment for responders but not for the population.

Evacuation or Shelter-in-Place

The evacuation of the civil population may become a necessity after an attack. A CBRN attack carries unique considerations due to the persistence of the threat and the fact that people, equipment, and even personal belongings could unknowingly carry chemical agents, biological hazards, and radiological material. In the moments immediately after an attack, many civilians will likely evacuate or flee the area prior to any response by local civil authorities. Unfortunately, this could mean the transfer of the threat to a wider area.

Sheltering in place is the best option to mitigate the effects of many attacks. Staying inside, shutting windows and doors, and sealing any gaps, such as exhaust fans, are effective against alpha- and beta-emitting ionizing radiation and trace amounts of chemical vapor.  The three principles of protection from ionizing radiation are “time, distance, and shielding.” Sheltering-in-place can provide both distance and shielding from radioactive particles.  Figure 6 shows the penetrating distances of ionizing radiation based on different materials.

Figure 6:  Ionizing Radiation Penetration [12].

Alpha-emitting radiation can be stopped by the layer of dead skin but poses a major threat if inhaled or ingested, where it can cause severe cell damage. Beta emitters can penetrate skin, but clothing can provide protection. Roofs, walls, and windows provide protection from both types of emitters. Critically, a house or other structure provides distance from fallout, even for those particles which emit radiation that can penetrate these materials. By increasing the distance from a person to the source of radiation, the amount of radiation exposure decreases.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency states that “In most cases…hazardous chemicals are dispersed with increasing distance from the source” [13].  Identifying safe areas for refuge could be a tall order on smaller islands. Depending on conditions, the entire surface area of an island could be in the contaminated zone in under an hour. Figure 7 shows the spread of radiation after a hypothetical release in Washington, D.C.  The diameter of the cloud is roughly 2 miles.

Figure 7:  Hypothetical Attack on Washington D.C. With 50 g of Cesium-137 Chloride [14].

The immediate movement of a civilian population could result in people ending up downwind from the threat and at greater risk. It is essential that local authorities understand these risks and assist in directing fleeing civilians to a safe location. This includes local police, fire departments (including volunteers), emergency medical services, schools, hospitals, and security officials at large venues. Further, coordination must be made to keep others out of the contaminated zone, such as a Notice to Mariners through the United States Coast Guard to keep ships out of the downwind area.

The geography and topography of an impacted island will have a major effect on the types of actions that need to occur. In the chemical and radiological realms, wind can carry energized particles and chemical vapors over great distances.  Islands in the Pacific are uniquely affected by trade winds, causing rapid movement of contamination.  Imposed over Washington, D.C., the hypothetical attack in Figure 7 accounted for 7 mile-per-hour winds. The constant wind speed in the Pacific islands of concern is normally double that. Many islands, such as Oahu, Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Ofu, and Olosega, are bisected by mountains. These mountains will help to contain a threat closer to the incident site. Responders must understand how these factors will impact a response [15]. On a relatively flat island or on the western side of an island, sheltering-in-place will be the preferred option to protect the population. However, on the eastern side of an island, provided that is the origin of the incident and the topography will contain some of the contamination, evacuation may be necessary.

Evacuations must be done in a controlled, safe manner. Initially, these evacuations will be conducted by local officials. But this creates an immediate issue for many areas in the Pacific—where does everyone go? Eight of the populated islands previously listed are smaller in area than Washington, D.C.  While their populations are generally smaller, this gives limited space to evacuate to in the event of an attack. A large percentage of the island could be rendered untenable by the attack. Areas need to be set up to marshal, test, decontaminate, track, and care for people. Decontamination areas must be kept upwind, and their waste segregated.

Evacuations are inherently dangerous. They create panic and can cause unnecessary stress to families and officials if the evacuation itself is not necessary. The elderly, disabled, and hospitalized are at increased risk during evacuation. They are also resource intensive. People need fuel, food, fresh water, hygiene supplies, power, medication, and clothing while traveling and when they reach their destination. Ordering an evacuation is always a risk-based decision, and it may not be an option in many locations in the Pacific. For example, evacuation was avoided during the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor partial meltdown. Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh did not order a general evacuation because of the risk it posed and the panic that would ensue.  He determined that evacuation could lead to many deaths. Some of the elderly and hospitalized would not survive the physical and mental stress. The increase in traffic, combined with the desire to move quickly, could create more traffic fatalities.  Notably, Governor Thornburgh himself remained in Harrisburg, just 12 miles away [16]. Sheltering-in-place will be the most viable option for all but the most catastrophic of scenarios.


The United States has a Homeland Defense commitment in the Pacific Ocean that stretches over 4,000 miles. There are unique technical and logistics challenges in managing a response to these islands that do not exist in the Continental United States. Many of the islands are sparsely populated. While this reduces the impact of an event, it also reduces the availability of a local response to nearly zero. As the entire U.S. Department of Defense looks westward, they must consider the over 1.5 million inhabitants of these islands and be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice.


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