Make the Marianas the Sea Drone Hub

By Ginger Cruz

When my stepson Adam was getting out of high school and pondering what he wanted to do, I asked him what he really loved. He responded, “Pilot video games,” adding “but that’s not a career.” I replied, “but you can learn to be an actual pilot.” He did just that, and today Adam is absolutely in his element, flying and moving up the ranks in airport management.

That was 10 years ago.  The funny thing is, if he asked me the same question today, I would have said stay on the video game track and become a virtual pilot.   That’s right. First it was driverless taxis in San Francisco. Now it’s pilotless Air Force planes and captainless Navy ships! If you have not been tracking, it is actually quite mind blowing.

The Department of Defense has just rolled out “The Replicator Initiative,” a program that will shift the mindset of the military from high price tag planes and ships and bring into the mix thousands upon thousands of drones.  We’re not talking about the little helicopters you use to take vacation pictures.  These are “all-domain attritable autonomous” drones that will be used in the air, on and under the sea, and on land.  The capability already available is quite stunning – unmanned combat aircraft that will fly alongside fighter planes, unmanned submarines recently used by Ukraine against Russia, and unmanned ships that can support everything from logistics to surveillance and more. And they need tons of them.

Just as the creation of airplanes revolutionized how wars are won, drones will further reduce combat casualties and dramatically expand capabilities and endurance. And they are already here.

The Triton squadron is back at Anderson AFB with unmanned aircraft that can fly as high as 50,000 feet and stay up for 24 hours, allowing them to survey millions of square miles of ocean. Four unmanned Navy ships are going to be operating out of U.S. bases in Japan. They pulled into port this week in Yokosuka  after a long voyage from California, on the way navigating around typhoons and participating in joint operations with manned ships.

Guam and the CNMI need to seriously consider expanding our role in this emerging field.  There are already drone companies on Guam that put on the light shows during Liberation Day. These companies  are also currently  working with the military. Building that capability, attracting more firms, and making Guam a leading location for innovators – especially focusing on the expanding market for sea drones – could become quite lucrative with over $23 billion in orders expected next year.

To get it done, we would need to partner with high quality contractors, dedicate land for a production zone, provide tax incentives and a business climate that entices the industry to set up here, and legislators and executives that seek out and reward companies for coming.  But the most important ingredient is talent.  Middle and high schools need to step up STEM programs to give students the basics.  UOG has conducted drone pilot training courses and the Bureau of Statistics and Plans had similar training for public safety personnel. We need more of this from UOG, GCC, and NMC, leveraging UOG’s new Sea Grant status to build a highly skilled workforce from our regional talent.

Imagine Guam and the CNMI as leaders in sea drone manufacturing and maintenance, drones that would have value for research, surveys, surveillance, data collection, aquaculture, underwater repair and mining, and the military.

Three states – New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma – have built strong drone manufacturing capabilities, and while they have vast prairies, the Marianas has the vaster Western Pacific, and we are right where most drones will be fielded. Add in millions in climate study grants, and perfecting sea drones could be a perfect fit.

Right now our main role with the military is logistics hub – with local jobs focused on construction, maintenance and hosting exercise participants at hotels.  This would bump things up a notch.  As our best and brightest took high paying tech jobs and learned from these companies, the Marianas could soon be an incubator for innovation as we started setting up our own cutting-edge companies.

Making this happen starts at the top. We need people who, instead of constantly arguing about procurement shortcomings for fixing school bathrooms and public hospital air conditioners, actually fix those decades-old problems and think bigger. We need people who can redefine the Marianas as more than just a budget tourist destination, federal aid recipient or host to the military. Here is an innovative idea that can expand our economies, create sustainable local jobs, keep our brightest youth on our islands and maybe even lure a few alums back home. We need people who can work together to pursue the idea with the same vigor that we spend pontificating at oversight hearings, hosting fundraisers, and griping about load-shedding.

We need people who can make the Marianas the Sea Drone Hub.


Ginger Cruz is Founder and CEO of Mantid International. A policy advocate and Adjunct Professor of US Foreign Policy at UOG. Cruz formerly held positions at KUAM and the Office of the Governor.  Cruz is the former Deputy Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and a Deputy Assistant Secretary at US-HUD.  She has a master’s in public policy from Johns Hopkins SAIS and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.

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