Marines on Okinawa: Time to Leave?

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Marine Corps photo

A Marine of the 1st Marine Division draws a bead on a Japanese sniper with his tommy-gun as his companion ducks for cover. The division is working to take Wana Ridge before the town of Shuri. Okinawa, 1945.

TOKYO – More than six decades after U.S. Marines stormed ashore on Okinawa, it may finally be time for them to go home. Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Friday fired his defense minister, in part for missteps and verbal gaffes related to plans for building a new airbase and relocating thousands of U.S. Marines on Okinawa.

But soaring costs, local opposition and the changing military environment, as well as budget cuts and force-structure changes at home, are leading some to ask whether the Marines are really needed here at all. “People are going to take a hard look at the Marines and say, ‘Well, I don’t know why they are even there,’” says Jeffrey Hornung, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a Defense Department-sponsored think tank in Honolulu (Hornung says his views are his own). “Given how much problems this is causing in Okinawa, it’s finally time to re-think things.”

For decades, the Marines have been a centerpiece of U.S. strategy in the Pacific. From Okinawa, Marines are only a few days sailing time from Taiwan, the Korean peninsula or other potential trouble spots.  A powerful Marine task force just over the horizon was considered a powerful deterrent to bad actors from East Asia to the Persian Gulf.

But noise, crime and overcrowding from the up to 18,000 Marines and other troops based on Okinawa have generated generations of protests from residents, and have led to paralyzing political debates.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa was sacked Friday for a series of verbal gaffes and missteps related to a plan to replace the Futenma airbase and relocate 8,000 Marines and their dependents to Guam.  The plan was agreed upon by Washington and Tokyo in 2006 after 10 years of tough negotiations, but is widely opposed in Okinawa for not going far enough.

That plan now all but dead, in part because escalated the cost from $10 billion to nearly $30 billion. New negotiations will take place as the Obama administration is looking to cut defense spending by $487 billion over the next 10 years and realign US forces worldwide.

While Obama said last week that budget cuts would not come at the expense of US forces in Asia, it’s certain the Marines on Okinawa will get a close look.

Although 18,000 Marines are nominally based on Okinawa, the number has been closer to 12,000 to 14,000 in recent years because of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Due to training restrictions on Okinawa, most of those troops were sent to California for final pre-deployment training.

More than a thousand Marines on Okinawa – the exact number is unclear — are assigned to headquarters units that have few if any combat units specifically assigned to them. III MEB, 3rd Marine Division and III MEF each have full headquarters element, including a commanding general and his staff, but exist largely to build up to brigade, division or multi-division size units, respectively, in case of a large land war or contingency in Asia.

Whether those headquarters elements could be located elsewhere and still get the job done – or whether the job is still required – is likely to get a close look. The Marines are currently planning to cut about 12,000 troops from their current strength of 200,000.

Even the Marines’ core combat element on Okinawa, the 31st MEU, is likely to get a close review.  The 31st MEU is one of seven amphibious groups that patrol various parts of the globe for up to six months at a time.  Three are based at Camp Lejeune, S.C., and three at Camp Pendleton, Calif.  Although Okinawa saves a week or more sailing time, it’s unclear whether the sailing time saved from the West Coast.  Each unit is limited to about 2,200 Marines, including support and logistics troops.  Obama announced last year that 2,500 Marines would be stationed in Darwin, Australia, but whether they would serve as a replacement for the 31st MEU is also unclear.

Hornung says that until recently he was a strong supporter of keeping Marines in Okinawa, but he’s now convinced other forces in the region could do the job.

“What are the Marines on Okinawa for? If you say they are there for deterrence, then you have to ask, deterrence from what?  If you are talking about China, then that would be the 7th Fleet.  If you are talking about North Korea, then I would say it’s the troops who are (based) in Korea,” Hornung says. “If you pull the Marines out, is that going to hurt Japanese national security or US national security? I don’t think so.”