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U.S. Marines with Task Force Koa Moana 23 and Palauan Maritime Law Enforcement Officers pose for a photograph at the conclusion of the Task Force Koa Moana RQ-20B Puma Training Course graduation at the Palau Joint Operations Center, Bureau of Maritime Security and Fish & Wildlife Protection, Koror, Palau, Sept. 14, 2023. Task Force Koa Moana 23, composed of U.S. Marines and Sailors from I Marine Expeditionary Force, deployed to the Indo-Pacific to strengthen relationships with Pacific Island partners through bilateral and multilateral security cooperation and community engagements. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Courtney G. White)

Koror, Palau. (October 5, 2023): In this photo by Staff Sergeant Courtney G. White,  U.S. Marines with Task Force Koa Moana 23 and Palauan Maritime Law Enforcement Officers pose for a photograph at the conclusion of a RQ-20B Puma Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Training Course. The program was part of Task Force Koa Moana 23, a joint 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Palauan Fish and Wildlife service exercise to improve cooperation between our two nations.

Palau is an enormous chain of over five hundred islands that make up the Micronesia region in the western Pacific Ocean. Koror Island is home to the former capital, also named Koror, and is the islands’ commercial center. Palau is strategically located between the Philippines and Guam, vital bases for U.S. bombers . It is one of three Pacific island countries that ceded their defense and security to the United States in 1982 in exchange for economic assistance and other benefits under what are called “compacts of free association”.

Since then, growing threats from China coupled with instability on the Korean peninsula have increased the importance of this tiny country to our national defense. China’s military spending has grown rapidly in recent years and its military has become increasingly aggressive in the Pacific. China asserts sovereignty over numerous disputed islands, all of which have been denied by the international courts. China nevertheless continues to menace its neighbors and threaten vital sea lanes. Finally, it is probably a major irritant for China that Palau and the Marshall Islands are among the fourteen countries that still give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

To capitalize on Palau’s tactical position, the Department of Defense recently awarded a $120 million contract for construction of a  “Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar” station to improve American intelligence gathering capability. This early warning system provides greater range than line-of-sight radars and boosts America’s ability to monitor forces in the Pacific. Military plans call for two sites – a receiver and transmitter – at opposite ends of the island chain and the system is targeted to go online by 2026.

The 20,000 people of Palau welcome the American presence and officials there have encouraged the United States to build military bases in the country to boost its economy. Expanding American capability in key island nations like Palau adds another layer of defense against looming threats in the Pacific.