U.S. preparing to abandon Clark Air Base

July 16, 1991|By Philip Shenon | Philip Shenon,New York Times News Service

MANILA, Philippines -- The United States informed the Philippine government yesterday that it expects to abandon Clark Air Base in the Philippines, once a major military hub, because of damage caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the huge costs needed to rebuild the base, U.S. and Philippine officials say.

At the same time, the officials said, U.S. negotiators have told their Philippine counterparts that the United States wishes to retain the giant Subic Bay Naval Station, which also was seriously damaged by the eruption of the volcano, but which is considered too valuable to abandon.

In recent years, the United States has shown little enthusiasm for keeping Clark because it is no longer as vital to U.S. military and strategic policy as it once was. But Subic, with its logistic and port installations -- the largest outside the United States -- is deemed important by U.S. strategic planners.

"In an age of satellites and long-range jets, the United States can get along without Clark," a U.S. military official said. "But Subic is a different matter. It is a nearly perfect, well-sheltered deep-water harbor that is irreplaceable. For the United States Navy, there is nothing like it in this part of the world."

The U.S. lease on the two bases expires in September. Officials said that President Corazon C. Aquino was informed of the plans to pull out of Clark, one of the largest U.S. military installations outside the United States, at a meeting in Manila yesterday with Adm. Charles Larson, who commands all U.S. military operations in the Pacific.

The Clark base, 10 miles east of Mount Pinatubo, has been smothered by a thick layer of volcanic ash that is two feet deep in places. A Defense Department survey team found that it would cost $500 million to $800 million to dig out the 9,000-acre base and to repair runways and more than 70 buildings that collapsed or were damaged by the ash, U.S. officials said.

The Pentagon investigators, they said, warned that the threat from the 5,800-foot volcano was not over. Scientists say Mount Pinatubo could continue spewing its noxious cloud of ash and steam for three more years.

While the decision to abandon Clark has not been announced formally, the chief U.S. negotiator in the base talks, Richard L. Armitage, hinted strongly of it when he arrived in Manila yesterday for another round of base negotiations with Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus.

"Our facilities at Clark and Subic have sustained substantial damage," Mr. Armitage said in a statement read at the city's international airport.

"The estimated cost of reconstituting either or both of these facilities, as well as the time involved, promises to be considerable," he said.

"Clark's outlook is further clouded by the continuing emissions of ash from Mount Pinatubo that pose a serious hazard to aviation. I have already indicated to Secretary Manglapus, unfortunately, that the future of Clark is questionable."

Formal talks on the bases are to resume today.

Before the first eruption of Mount Pinatubo on June 9, the United States offered $360 million in annual compensation for a 10-year extension on the leases for both Clark and Subic.

Philippine negotiators asked for $825 million a year in exchange for a seven-year treaty.

In the wake of the eruption, U.S. officials said they will now insist on at least a decade-long lease for Subic at far less money than had been requested by the Philippine government for use of both bases.

Nearly 2,400 Air Force employees remain at Clark.

Base's history

What would eventually become known as Clark Air Base had its beginnings in 1903, when the United States Army established a cavalry post on the Philippine island of Luzon.

The post was named Fort Stotsenburg, for Col. John Stotsenburg, a slain hero of the Spanish-American War.

In 1919, the post's airfield was named for Maj. Harold M. Clark, an Army flier who had been raised in the Philippines and died in a seaplane crash in the Panama Canal Zone.

According to William Heimdahl, chief of the historical services division at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, Fort Stotsenburg was abandoned to invading Japanese forces in 1941 and was reoccupied by the United States in February 1945.

The U.S. Air Force, created in 1947, was eventually given control of Fort Stotsenburg. The Air Force renamed it Clark Air Base.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars, Clark was the logistical hub of the Western Pacific, and as many as 60,000 Americans lived in the area.

Clark provided jobs to thousands of Filipinos, and towns sprang up around the base providing every kind of service, including American fast-food restaurants, automobile dealerships and the honky-tonk bars of the city of Angeles.

New York Times News Service

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