Palau State Sues Own Government, U.S Government and Military Contractors, Over Island Radar Project

Patrick Colwell
Patrick Colwell
Pat is a traveling freelance journalist and photographer, and holds a bachelor's degree with a focus in conflict investigation. With years of expertise in OSINT, geolocation, and data analysis, he is also the founder of the Our Wars Today brand.

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The Republic of Palau is a Micronesian island country on the island of Palau, southeast of the Philippines. The island was part of the key battles of Peleliu and Angaur, where U.S. Marines fought Japanese forces during World War II, falling under U.S. trust territory in the postwar period. In the postwar period, they would vote in a referendum for full sovereignty and gain it in 1978, in free association with the United States, which provides economic and defense support. They use the U.S. dollar as currency; largely, the economy is based on fishing, subsistence agriculture, and, in the past few decades, tourism. The U.S.’s recent focus on the island has been on establishing local coast guard support and building radar stations in the event of a Pacific conflict.

The Republic of Palau on a map of the Pacific. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Angaur state in Palau has been designated as the site for the building of a $118 million (awarded to Gilbane Federal originally, subcontracted further) planned Tactical Mobile Over-the-Horizon Radar (TACMOR) to be completed in 2026. Mixed reactions have resulted, with officials and locals pointing to pollution and environmental destruction of U.S. contractors work, as well as the threat to citizens as the state would become a tactical target as it did when the island was bombed during WWII. The island has had historical ties with China and Taiwan and has especially profited from Chinese tourism in recent years, but has fallen out of favor with China politically after refusing to stop recognizing Taiwan’s legitimacy in 2018. Locals have asked for bomb shelters to be constructed over fears that China would bomb the TACMOR installation first before invading Taiwan.

More info on the TACMOR installation technical side here: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/u-s-building-advanced-over-the-horizon-radar-on-palau

Angaur Sues:

The state of Angaur, represented by Governor Steven Salii, has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. and Palau over violations of Palau environmental laws and the Compact of Free Association agreements. They claim the permits for clearing were not acquired before the clearing of the 271,807-square-meter plot of land by U.S. contractors. The U.S. has certain rights to land use, but the state lawsuit claims these rights were overstepped and interfered with fishing activities. They also claim it is leading to decreased access and travel in the region and that it has led to coral reef erosion and polluted marine life due to a lack of mitigation efforts. The suit claims that 1,869 tons of lead-contaminated soil and 125 drums of 92 tons of bitumen (petroleum) are exposing residents to harmful poison due to their placement at the TACMOR site. “The people here usually come here to collect land crabs or fish around the reefs… but now they can’t” expressed a former governor of Angaur. The suit asks the state to issue fines of $10,000 per day while violations continue by Palau, the U.S., EQPB, CAPE Environmental, or Pacific Unlimited.

Local chiefs of the Ngermasech hamlet, the Ngarraeriud, signed a resolution opposing the lawsuit, citing that the residents of the area hadn’t signed off on it or had known of it. They assert that the project will improve the local economy and provide new jobs and opportunities. The land was originally leased to the government, which in turn allowed the U.S. to use it under Free Association measures.

The U.S. Navy’s Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar to show what the transmit and receive sites for TACMOR could shape up to look like. Credit: U.S. Navy

Presidential Response:

President of Palau, Surangle Whipps Jr., has said it makes the island a target while also calling for a stronger relationship with the U.S., saying their relations can’t be taken for granted. “China has offered to send more tourists than ever and make huge investments in new industries… We need constant policy level attention.” he said while testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives during the Indo-Pacific Task Force hearing on July 18th. Through an agreement after the compact negotiation, Palau accepted an offer of $890 million in economic aid from the U.S. for 20 years, starting in October 2024. Whipps said the aid would provide the stability the country needed.

“Palau is the westernmost freely associated state. We have a land mass similar in size to Guam and easily the size of Texas,” Whipps said (Palau has a landmass of 177 square miles, or 470 square kilometers, Texas and Guam have areas of 268,597 square miles and 212 square miles respectively) “We provide land needed for U.S. defence… We are on the frontline of competition not just because their early warning radar makes us a target.” Whipps said the influx of Chinese interest and offers to the country came after waning U.S. support from 2010 to 2018.

What’s Next?

Lack of coordination and communication with locals, environmental destruction and runoff, as well as political incidents such as the U.S. embassy canceling a trip over the matter, have led to discontent with some citizens and especially the local governance. Blame has been assigned to the contractors, a well-known deficient department in the U.S. military history of construction, often with the lowest-bidding companies being awarded contracts. Chinese citizens are offering to set up casinos and increase tourism on the island. Chinese officials have reportedly offered to send more tourists to the island. Officials of the island, mainly federal, have called on the U.S. to supply them with more political support for such matters as well as aid during a period of low economic growth. While it seems the President and some citizens are confident that the situation going forward will be beneficial, local officials may still raise qualms about the impact on communities from such military projects.