US plans over-the-horizon radar facility in Palau

Stephen Wright
US plans over-the-horizon radar facility in Palau This photo taken on Feb. 15, 2018 shows a general view of the Rock Islands in the Pacific island nation of Palau. The U.S. military plans to install over-the-horizon radar in Palau by 2026, adding to its early-warning capabilities for the western Pacific.
Mikhail Flores/AFP

The U.S. military plans to install over-the-horizon radar in Palau by 2026, adding to its early-warning capabilities for the western Pacific as China’s military strength increases, according to documents released by the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense awarded a U.S. $120 million contract in late December for construction of reinforced foundations and pads in Palau for “Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar” equipment, 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 United States is responsible for Palau’s defense but has not had forces stationed 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 United States Institute of Peace, said Wednesday.

China’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 including the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia that have ceded defense and security to the United States in exchange for economic assistance and other benefits under compacts of free association.

China’s efforts to build influence in the Pacific have largely scored success with South Pacific island states. But any weakening of the relationship between the United States and the compact states would be a potential opening for Beijing in a militarily strategic part of the region, analysts have said. 

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 Pacific island nations – Kiribati and the Solomon Islands – switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 2019.

Officials in Palau, home to about 20,000 people, have previously encouraged the United States to build military bases in the country as a way of boosting its small economy.

The United States “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.

Department of Defense technical documents, released as part of the contracting process for the project, indicate less 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.” 

China’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.


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