US Military Presence in the Freely Associated States

A new legislative proposal pending before the U.S. Congress, The Puerto Rico Status Act, includes an option for Puerto Rico’s future called sovereign free association.

Free association requires a country to sign a special treaty with the United States, known as a Compact of Free Association (COFA). Three nations currently have free association status with the United States. In every case, there is a controlling U.S. military presence in those nations.

In other words, current nations in free association with the U.S. do not have control – sovereignty – over their defense and national security policy.  The U.S. has that power instead.

Draft bill definition of free association

The draft bill – which Congressional leaders are referring to as a discussion draft – includes three status options:

  • Statehood
  • Independence
  • Free Association

Under Free Association, the “full powers and responsibilities” accorded to a sovereign Puerto Rico would apply “except as otherwise provided for in the Articles of Free Association.” 

The Articles of Free Association, which will have to be negotiated between the United States and the new nation of Puerto Rico, can be expected to include limitations on the power of the new nation, just as the COFAs of the current Freely Associated States (FAS) limit the powers of those nations.

Current Compacts of Free Association include a U.S. “defense veto” over the nations’ security policies and a U.S. “right of strategic denial” that grants the U.S. control over access of third party countries to the Free Association nations’ air, water, and land rights.

The discussion draft is explicit that everything “pertaining to the government-to-government relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S.” including “security and defense”…”shall be provided for in the Articles of Free Association.”

U.S. military presence in the current FAS

Lieutenant General Daniel L. Karbler, commander of the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command, recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. He reported on the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site (RTS) at U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

“The RTS is a vital national asset that provides live-fire developmental and operational flight testing of offensive and defensive missile, hypersonic, and space systems; equatorial satellite launch capability; space object tracking and characterization; and atmospheric science research,” Karbler said. “This unique range and test facility, located 2,300 miles west-southwest of Hawaii, provides test support to MDA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and other agencies.”

Read the full testimony.

INDO-PACOM Commander Admiral John Aquilino also spoke on military presence in the FAS during a recent closed hearing in the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

“USINDOPACOM routinely engages with the Freely Associated States (FAS)—the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Republic of Palau—with which the United States have signed Compacts of Free Association (COFA),” Aquilino explained. “Under the COFAs, the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in and relating to each of these three countries, including special and extensive access to operate in these territories and the ability to deny access to these three countries by any third country militaries. Our agreements with FAS allow us to sustain a forward combat credible presence. USINDOPACOM engages in military construction projects throughout the FAS to improve air and maritime infrastructure, enhance domain awareness, and support FAS efforts to protect their economic interests.”

Read the full testimony.

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