The United States military plans to install over-the-horizon radar in Palau by 2026, adding to its early warning capabilities for the western Pacific as the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military strength increases.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) awarded a U.S. $120 million contract in late December 2022 to build reinforced foundations and pads in Palau for Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar, a sensor station which provides greater range than line-of-sight radar.
Technical documents show details of two sites — a receiver and transmitter — at opposite ends of the island chain. The U.S. is responsible for Palau’s defense but has not stationed forces there in recent decades.
“This new facility will likely have a very light U.S. military footprint, but it’s clear that the Pentagon sees significant value in using Palau’s unique geography to employ this particular radar system,” Brian Harding, an Asia expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said in January 2023.
The PRC’s military spending has grown rapidly in the past two decades, reaching about 30% of the annual U.S. military budget in 2021, and its capacity to strike U.S. forces in its neighborhood has increased.
Palau, located between the Philippines and Guam, a base for U.S. bombers, is one of three Pacific Island Countries (PICs), including the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia, that have ceded defense and security to the U.S. in exchange for economic assistance and other benefits under compacts of free association.
Palau and the Marshall Islands are among the 14 countries that still give their diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province. Two other PICs — Kiribati and the Solomon Islands — switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019. (Pictured: Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. speaks during a United Nations General Assembly in September 2021.)
Officials in Palau, home to about 20,000 people, have previously encouraged the U.S. to build military bases in the country as a way of boosting its small economy.
The U.S. “enjoys broad rights to develop defense facilities in the country, something that Palau has often encouraged but to date, the United States has taken little advantage,” said Harding, a former Pentagon official.
DOD technical documents, released as part of the contracting process for the project, indicate fewer than 11 defense personnel would be routinely stationed at the radar facility.
Budget documents show the Palau facility has been in the works since at least 2017 and is described as needed to “support air domain awareness and maritime domain awareness requirements over the Western Pacific region.”
The PRC’s military buildup, its expansive claims to the South China Sea, a busy global shipping route, and its forays into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone have contributed to heightened tensions in East Asia and the Pacific for several years.
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS