The Okinawa Solution
The problems with American military bases in Japan are complex, but the solution on the island of Okinawa is simple. A key Japanese demand is the closure of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, which the Marines have dodged for decades. Yet closing Futenma is not sufficient since most Okinawans want all the Marine Corps bases closed, and don't want a new airbase further north nor an expanded presence at the U.S. Air Force base at Kadena to accommodate Marine aircraft from nearby Futenma. "Time" magazine published a short article in early 2012 questioning why we still have any Marines on Okinawa, as did "Forbes": Give Okinawa Back to the Okinawans.
The Marines also failed to close Camp Kinser as promised in 2006, a logistics base located in a densely populated area along the beautiful China Sea -- an ideal spot for tourist hotels. The Marines must relent and promptly close Futenma and Kinser, and close nearby Camp Foster as well. Marine units could easily move to other U.S. military bases in Asia and to larger bases in the less crowded northern half of Okinawa. These changes would increase the relevance of the U.S. Marine Corps while eliminating the major diplomatic conflict with the Japanese. This would remove half the 17,000 Marines from Okinawa, and could be accomplished within four years with no new construction or additional funding.
The primary obstacle to an Okinawa solution is a myth. Marine Corps Generals claim that their bases on Okinawa are essential for peace and stability in the Western Pacific. However, any war in the Pacific would consist of air and naval battles for a year until a victor emerged and began to amass ground forces and transport ships for an amphibious invasion. Should war break out with China or Russia, the 4000 combat Marines on Okinawa would play no role. In addition, these few Marines are not required to help the modern, mobilized army of five million South Koreans repel an unlikely invasion attempt by a million poorly equipped North Koreans.
A big secret is that 13,000 Marines on Okinawa are base, logistics, and headquarters personnel. The Marine's III MEF command element on Okinawa is nearly as big as its ground combat element! In recent years, there have been no ground combat forces on Okinawa as deployable combat units were diverted to Iraq and Afghanistan, yet war did not erupt in the Western Pacific. The four Navy amphibious ships (amphibs) at Sasebo on mainland Japan can only embark 2000 Marines, and no one can explain where these few Marines might be needed. They are not needed to defend South Korea or Taiwan, and 4000 Marine infantrymen would make no difference anyway. Taiwan can defend itself since China has limited naval power, and is gradually becoming an ally of one of its biggest trading partners -- China.
The key to peace and stability in the Western Pacific are good relations between the USA and its key ally Japan, which have been strained by a refusal of Marine Generals to accommodate reasonable requests to reduce their post-World War II occupation presence on Okinawa. This has caused friction for decades, and could result in a stern order from Tokyo to vacate all bases on Okinawa, including the strategic U.S. Air Force base at Kadena. In addition, Okinawa is a horrible location for Marines to train. The training areas are small and mountainous, with no off-road access for vehicles. Deployed artillery batteries must travel to mainland Japan to fire their guns. Marines find the locals unfriendly, prices high, and hate the off-base curfews implemented to avoid incidents. This has worsened since this author lived on Okinawa at Camps Hansen, Foster, and Kinser in the 1980s.
Marines from Okinawa haven't intervened in any armed conflict in the Pacific since the Vietnam War, while they were needed elsewhere in the world nearly every year. Marines back home in the USA deployed to overseas crises while the "forward-deployed" Marines on Okinawa sat in garrison. This was detailed in an article by this author, "WestPac Marines: Forward or Backward Deployed", which appeared in the "Marine Corps Gazette" two decades ago. In recent years, thousands of forward-deployed Okinawa-based Marines were flown back to California for training prior to deploying to Iraq.
Why are U.S. Marines on Okinawa?
Marines belong to an organization highly resistant to change. They are on Okinawa because that's where they were at the end of World War II, where they have built nice facilities for families and personnel, mostly paid for by the Japanese government. Many Japanese and American corporations profit off the Marine presence and oppose change. Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have become a Marine tradition. All Marine Generals have lived on Okinawa at different times since they first joined the Corps. The weather is nice, the beaches are beautiful, and the island mostly crime free. It's a great place for families and golf.
The more Okinawans protest and demand the Marines leave, the more determined Marine Generals become to repel attacks to defend "their" bases. Back in 2001, the top Marine General in Japan told his staff that he despised local Okinawan leaders, telling them: "I think they are all nuts and a bunch of wimps." However, no Okinawan was responsible for World War II, and that island belongs to them.
After all that happened in the Middle East over the past two decades, Marine Generals have no plans to keep combat forces at U.S. Navy bases in the Mediterranean/Middle East region, even though several facilities are available. The post Iraq/Afghanistan forward-deployment plan was recently announced by the Marine Corps Commandant. It's a return to traditional Cold war occupation duty on peaceful Okinawa, where American Marines are not wanted or needed. Infantry battalions and aircraft squadrons will resume deployments to tropical Okinawa and spend seven months waiting for "something" to happen.
Tell It to the Marines
America's civilian leadership must gather Army, Navy, and Air Force leaders and conduct an "intervention" with top Marine Generals. They must explain that the Marines must quickly return their three bases at Futenma, Kinser, and Foster, located in the densely populated area of southern Okinawa. Plans to move 8000 Marines and equal number of family members to Guam was recently rejected by the U.S. Congress since it would cost far too much, angered many on Guam, and would not solve the Okinawa problem. The Marines must move some Marines to other U.S. military bases near potential areas of conflict. In addition, the recently announced agreement to maintain 2500 Marines at Darwin, Australia makes no strategic sense. This will require several billion dollars in new construction, and that tiny number of Marines would play no role in any Asian conflict where armies number in the hundreds of thousands. While Darwin is great location for an airbase, there is no logic to maintaining 2500 infantrymen in that remote area.
The post-Vietnam War effort to maintain an Amphibious Ready Group with four Navy ships and 2000 Marines of the 31st MEU ready to intervene from Japan is long outdated, even before this author spent time aboard the similar 35th MAU in WestPac over two decades ago. Intervene where? There is no Grenada scenario in this region. There are several small, unstable nations in the South Pacific where this small force might be useful, but they are not vital to the USA, and are the same distance as ships and Marines from Hawaii. If a war breaks out in the Western Pacific, no one expects the four Navy amphibs at Sasebo to sail down to Okinawa to load up 2000 Marines. The Navy would debate if it is safer to keep those vulnerable ships at port and hope to survive air and missile attacks, or try to sneak past submarines and enemy aircraft and make for the safety of Hawaii. Any amphibious landing in the Western Pacific would require a year destroy enemy submarines, missile sites, and aircraft, and to assemble all our Navy's amphibs to embark 50,000 Marines off California.
If the Marines are truly interested in maintaining forward-deployed forces near potential areas of conflict, the answer is obvious - send them to the Mediterranean/Middle East region. The U.S. Navy has several bases that could accommodate a few hundred deployed Marines and several Marine Corps aircraft. In the 1980s, the Marines developed a Unit Deployment Program (UDP) to improve readiness and reduce the cost of maintaining Marines on Okinawa. Combat battalions and flying squadrons deploy from stateside bases on seven-month deployments after months of pre-deployment training, leaving their families behind. Since these Marines are deployed for a short period, they don't require first class housing and bases with a full range of amenities. They can live from bunk beds in open barracks or hangars with just a backpack full of personal gear and stand ready for warfighting. The Army has begun to copy this idea since it greatly reduces overseas basing costs and allows flexibility to instantly shift units elsewhere.
Marine Corps must shift deployments for two of its five deployed "UDP" infantry battalions
from boring garrison duty on Okinawa to security and rapid
response missions worldwide. A Marine infantry battalion designated for a
worldwide Marine Security deployment would conduct some battalion-level pre-deployment training. Approximately
prior to deployment, the battalion would break into smaller, self-contained units
with 50-300 Marines to prepare for
specific missions, often requiring additional training from the Marine Corps Security
Force experts at Norfolk. The Navy
is acquiring ten fast ferry JHSV
Spearhead ships for intra-theater transport, which require just 41
crewmen. These could provide deployed Marine detachments with instant transport from many
overseas Navy bases.
These are potential deployment spots for U.S. Marines near unstable areas. Two battalions of UDP Marines deployed as smaller task forces would have ample choices, which may change yearly. Deploying Marines to these bases would often require host nation approval, but that should not be an obstacle for just a few hundred Marines deployed for security and anti-piracy missions at existing bases. Teams of a dozen Marines may embark aboard U.S. flagged merchant ships as they sail near pirate invested waters near Somalia, and then transfer to a ship heading the other direction. If war threatens, these two battalions may quickly reassemble under the recently established "MEB" command element at Bahrain, led by a Marine General and staff that normally commands 15,000 Marines, yet has nothing to command today.
President Obama recently announced that the U.S. military will retain a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf region after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the Marines plan to only leave behind a General with 100 staff Marines? The new MARCENT MEB should have Marine Air Group, so placing MAG-36 Hqs from Okinawa at nearby Sheik Isa airbase (pictured below) is ideal. Several Marine squadrons operated from this base in past wars, so keeping two dozen Marine UDP aircraft there should be no problem. Since the Corps already maintains a hundred Marines and several helicopters at strategic Camp Lemonnier by the Red Sea, that presence could be formalized with UDP Marines.
A notional deployment would send a VMFA-UDP "fighter-attack" squadron to Sheik Isa where it could interact with deployed Navy carrier battle groups. An HMH-UPD "heavy lift helicopter" squadron could deploy to NAS Sigonella in Sicily, with half its CH-53s based there and the others detached to Sheik Isa and Camp Lemonier. An HMLA-UDP "Hueys and Cobras" could deploy to Camp Lemonier with most of its AH-1Z and UH-1Y helicopters, and some at Sheik Isa. The squadrons for the two ship-based MEUs kept in the region could interact with MAG-36 to easily shift assets among ships and airbases as the situation dictates. Some events may call for a Navy carrier to send some fighters ashore and embark Marines and their helicopters. These Marines could confront the growing piracy problem around Africa, which will become worse due to rampant population growth.
While Marine Generals struggle to defend the role of the Marine Corps, they must answer these questions: Will the Marine Corps continue to ignore its traditional anti-piracy mission? Will the Marines turn over deployments to the new strategic naval base at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti to the Army, so Marines can return to traditional deployments to Okinawa? Will Marines continue to cede its traditional special operations role to the Army so its grunts can deploy for mindless training in the jungles on Okinawa? Will Marines continue to watch conflicts unfold on CNN from televisions on Okinawa, while Congressmen question the value of the Marine Corps? Will the Navy assign its new JHSV "fast ferry" craft to support Army and Special Forces deployments around the world, since the Marines only deploy to Okinawa? Will supporters of the Marine Corps intervene to save the Corps, telling its Generals to give up half their Okinawa resorts and get back in the worldwide naval infantry game?
Our nation needs to improve its military capability in Asia, and there are several choices: 1) Improve airbase facilities at RAAF Darwin, Australia, to include stored air and naval munitions; 2) Continue improving facilities on Guam for the Navy and Air Force; 3) Reactive our military airbase at Adak, Alaska, to include stored air and naval munitions. This doesn't require the 6000 personnel based there in 1994, just a few hundred to support operations and guard munitions. 4) Improve airbases in Hawaii. The Navy has a little-used airfield at Barking Sands on Kauai that may be expanded, or perhaps the 1999 closure of the Navy's Barber's Point air station could be reversed. 5) Preserve and possibility expand the number of sealift and amphibious ships in the Pacific. However, the most important step is to preserve good relations with our key ally -- Japan, and retain Kadena airbase on Okinawa. This last step costs nothing to implement, except ordering the Marines to vacate three small bases in the southern part of that island.
The U.S. President or the U.S. Congress should direct:
1. The Marine Corps will alter its Unit Deployment Program (UDP) to divert some units from Japan to U.S. military bases in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions.
There are important national security missions around the Mediterranean Sea and Middle East where U.S. Marines could utilized their seven-month rotational UDP to position 50-300 man Marine task forces with aircraft at existing American military bases for counter-terrorism, allied training, base security, embassy security augmentation, and anti-piracy missions. This would redirect some 3000 Marines from post-World War II deployments to peaceful Japan (where they are not wanted or needed) to relevant missions near unstable areas of the world.
2. The Navy is directed to move Amphibious Squadron 11 from Sasebo, Japan to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Sasebo it a horrible location for four amphibious ships should war with China, Russia, or North Korea erupt. They are sitting ducks in port, and would face submarine and aerial attacks if they made for the safety of Hawaii. If war threatens and Admirals order these amphibs to steam for Hawaii, how many sailors would refuse to leave their families at Sasebo? As our nation's economy remains down and our Navy continues to downsize, Hawaiians would cheer the arrival of these ships and crews.
3. The Navy is directed to remove the headquarters for Amphibious Group 1 from Okinawa.
As Phibron 11 sails to Hawaii, there is no need
to keep its one-star command element "Amphibious Group 1" at the small
Beach Naval Station on Okinawa to
4. The Marine Corps is directed to move its 31st MEU from Okinawa, Japan to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
Maintaining a 2000-man MEU on Okinawa has always been difficult. There is no integrated pre-deployment training with the Navy prior to the arrival of the designated UDP infantry battalion from the states, which is assigned to the MEU just a few months. The 31st MEU logistics and command group mostly consists of Marines on one-year tours who spend just a few months assigned. Its ships are based several hours away at Sasebo, and are not ready for embarkation at Okinawan piers.
The bigger question is what value a MEU provides in WestPac? Other than small allied training exercises, it provides no fighting power should a war break out among the major powers. It does provide an intervention capability in small, unstable nations in the South Pacific, but those are just as close to Hawaii. Given that Okinawans hate the noisy Marine helicopters based at Futenma in the middle of a city on Okinawa and want the Marines to leave, moving the 31st MEU to Hawaii is a great idea. Marine aircraft from MAG-24 operate from isolated Kaneohe Bay with plenty of helicopters to provide a composite squadron for the 31st MEU. The three infantry battalions of the 3rd Marines based there could rotate readiness so that one is ready for instant deployment.
As a result, the only parts of 31st MEU that would move to Hawaii are its headquarters and logistics component (MLB-31). Its six jet fighter-bombers now kept UDP at Iwakuni could simply shift their deployment to Hawaii. These changes would add a modest 600 Marines to Kaneohe Bay. However, it would allow a reduction of 2000 Marines from Okinawa as the UDP helicopters now sent to Futenma are sent to the Middle East/Mediterranean region, while one fewer UDP battalion would be sent to Okinawa once the 3rd Marines' battalions now forward-deployed to Hawaii, no longer UDP further to Okinawa. The 31st MEU would still make WestPac deployments for allied training, based a safe distance from a potential WestPac air and naval war zone.
The readiness of the 31st MEU would increase as its components are permanently based on Hawaii rather than the seven-month UDP or one-year PCS manpower shuffle on Okinawa. Limited training areas and flight restrictions hamper readiness on Okinawa, while Hawaiian-based Marines can use the excellent Pohakulao Training Area on the big island of Hawaii. In addition, rapid embarkation allows a Hawaiian-based MEU to get underway several days faster since its ships would be ready for immediate embark at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, if war breaks out in WestPac, Admirals needn't worry about their defenseless amphibs at Sasebo.
5. The Air Force is directed to accommodate a Marine Corps aircraft squadron at its Kadena airbase on Okinawa, Japan by moving an Air Force flying squadron to another airbase in the Pacific region.
The Marines would still require local aerial transport aircraft on Okinawa to support training and island defense missions. A VMM (V-22) squadron with 12 aircraft is sufficient, or maybe a hybrid with 10 V-22s and 4 UH-1Y Hueys. The Air Force could squeeze a Marine squadron aboard Kadena (which has ten times more acreage than Futenma) using existing facilities, but given the local opposition to "expanding Kadena" it's best to move an Air Force squadron elsewhere. There are several options, such as Yokota airbase in Tokyo where thousands of Americans are based to support only 14 C-130 transports and a few VIP aircraft for Generals. There is ample space at Anderson AFB on Guam, where the Marine Corps wants to base a squadron of V-22s. The Air Force recently announced that it will shed another 286 aircraft, so it can easily find space for a squadron from Kadena.
6. The Marine Corps is directed to move its 1st Marine Air Wing headquarters, its support squadron, and a VMM (V-22) squadron to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, while redirecting one fighter-attack squadron from Iwakuni to a base in the Middle East.
This costs nothing to implement except minor office moving expenses after the departure of some Marine squadrons at Iwakuni opens plenty of room. The Marines are phasing out VMAQ (electronic warfare) squadrons as their ancient EA-6Bs are retired, thus removing one UDP squadron from Iwakuni. The six-plane plane VMA UDP detachment for the 31st MEU would shift to Hawaii. Finally, one VMFA (fighter-attack) UDP squadron with 12 FA-18s would shift deployments to the Middle East, probably Bahrain, so a VMM (V-22) squadron could move there from Futenma. Here is a detailed blueprint for this transition:
Proposed 1st Marine Air Wing Laydown - for closing MCAS Futenma and relocating aircraft elsewhere
7. The Marine Corps is directed to close MCAS Futenma, Camp Kinser, and Camp Foster on Okinawa, Japan.
Civilian leaders should establish timelines after consultation with the Pentagon, but no new construction is required for these changes, so they could be easily completed within four years. Generals will insist on years to study the idea, warn of vague dangers, and eventually insist on a compromise, like keeping Camp Foster open along with a few billion dollars for relocation costs. For example, Army Generals were ordered to remove two armored brigades from Germany in 2006, but hadn't begun the move six years later! The Navy and Marines automatically move personnel every 1-4 years with overseas rotations, and the four amphibs at Sasebo could relocate any equipment, so this proposal costs nothing.
The Japanese government would be so enthusiastic at this proposal that they would agree to cover any unexpected costs. The Japanese government already plans to spend billions of dollars to placate Okinawans and for new facilities for MCAS Futenma in northern Okinawa and on Guam for thousands more Marines. This will devour all funds the Japanese normally devote to maintaining and improving all other American bases in Japan. If the Marines voluntarily close three unneeded bases, these billions of dollars would be available to improve other American bases in Japan. The Marines would not lose any financial contributions from the Japanese government, because it never pays the U.S. military a cent. The billions of dollars "contributed" each year go to Japanese citizens for land rent, some new construction, and local stimulus payments to placate Okinawan political leaders. The remainder are bogus contributions, like not charging Americans import taxes and sales taxes at their bases.
8. The Marine Corps is directed to merge its III MEF Hqs into the Marine Forces Pacific Hqs at Camp Smith, Hawaii.
In 2011, the Marines announced detailed plans to downsize from 202,000 active duty Marines to 186,800 as combat operations end in Afghanistan. Since Corps had 177,000 active duty Marines on 9-11 and needs funds for expensive items of equipment, the Pentagon announced in January 2012 that the Marines will downsize by 4700 more to 182,100. While that doesn't seem like much, it's the equivalent manpower of an infantry regiment with its artillery battalion.
Reducing the Marine presence on Okinawa allows the reduction of base support, headquarters, and service support personnel for this additional 4700-man reduction without cutting combat forces. Ending airfield operations at Futenma and base operations at Futenma, Kinser, and Foster would eliminate some two thousand positions, although a couple hundred more base support Marines would be required to help support deployments to existing military bases in the Mediterranean/Middle East region. (Note: The true number of Marines devoted to garrison operations at Okinawan bases has always been hidden by FAP ; i.e. "loaning" Marines from operational units to help run the bases. Deployed combat Marines are often reassigned to work in places like bowling alleys, yet kept on the roster of their combat unit to show higher combat readiness.)
The logic of downsizing the 3000-man III MEF command element on Okinawa to a 1000-man 3rd MEB command element is undeniable. A MEF should command around 45,000 Marines. The two Marine infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, and five flying squadrons that this proposal leaves in Japan don't even constitute a full MEB, which should command around 15,000 Marines. It's true that Marines on Hawaii are part of III MEF, but as already discussed, if war broke out in the Pacific, it would be an air and naval war for a year before anyone considered moving ground forces anywhere. A war that size would involve deploying some 50,000 Marines from the USA for a huge invasion, led by I MEF from California. If Marine Generals want to retain the III MEF designation on the books, the obvious answer is to move its flag to Camp Smith, Hawaii and merge with the large Marine Forces Pacific headquarters administrative layer of command. Or, just eliminate the unnecessary Marine Forces Pacific Hqs and place III MEF at Camp Smith. Otherwise, the three-star Marine General in Hawaii could "dual-hat" as III MEF commander.
While Marine Generals will strongly oppose downsizing the huge III MEF command element along with several General officer slots, note that the Corps' current downsizing plan eliminates no MAGTF Hqs and no General officer slots. The Corps added four one-star MEB MAGTF headquarters since 9-11 after concluding that MEF Hqs were too large for the smaller contingencies required by post-Cold War missions. The Marines need to shed overhead, and III MEF Hqs or Marine Forces Pacific Hqs must go, or merge.
The departure of III MEF Hqs from Okinawa would leave the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Division with no mission, since 3rd MEB and its 4th Regiment Hqs would command the two remaining infantry battalions, plus any added from Hawaii should it deploy for a small regional crisis. As a result, the Corps should combine the 3rd Division Hqs with its nearby 3rd MEB Hqs and "dual hat" that two-star commander. Should a major war break out, 3rd MEB would focus base defense missions on Okinawa, guarding this "advanced naval base" against saboteurs and commandos, while rescuing or capturing downed pilots. As the I MEF command element arrives from California with large combat forces a year later, 3rd MEB Hqs. could morph into the 3rd Marine Division headquarters as it absorbs ground combat units.
This plan also allows the elimination of the third 500-man Marine FAST company, which was created after 9-11 to enhance security at naval bases. Two eastward deployed UDP battalions organized into smaller task forces would more than compensate for the loss of UDP FAST platoons in the Mediterranean/Middle East regions. In summary, the downsizing of III MEF Hqs, its 3rd Marine Division Hqs, its 3rd Marine Logistics Group, the closure of the Futenma airfield and three Marine bases, and the deactivation of a FAST company could eliminate the additional 4700 Marine positions needed to meet manpower goals without reducing combat power.
Or, Just Eliminate Our Second Land Army
There is no need to wait until Marines depart Afghanistan to begin downsizing on Okinawa. The idea of deploying thousands of Marines and dozens of aircraft to the Middle East rather than Okinawa was implemented years ago. These assets are now deployed to Afghanistan, so as they leave, they could simply shift their UDP destinations to American bases in the Mediterranean/Middle East region. Some Okinawans may object to this plan because they want all U.S. Marines to leave, but if the Marines suddenly vacate three bases south of Kadena, Okinawans would become distracted by the resulting employment and economic losses, and plans to reuse these vacant bases. Popular support for more base closures would quickly fade.
This plan may seem radical to some Marines, but there are simpler and less costly plans floating around the Pentagon and the halls of Congress, such as: deactivate all Marine units on Okinawa. That simple, no cost plan will gain support unless the Marines implement a better idea. Or, rather than downsizing the three big armed services, why not just eliminate the outdated Marine Corps? They haven't the politically important base presence in most states, and all of their long-time Marine veteran supporters from World War II in Congress have died off. The Marines refuse to deal with new threats like piracy, and have become a "second land army" that insists on sending most deployed Marines to peaceful Okinawan resorts, which is ruining relations with a critical ally. This proposal is critical of the Marines, but may save the Marine Corps from extinction.
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com
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Dec 2013 Update - UDP to Europe!
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Apr 2014 Update - Marines to Bahrain
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Jul 2020 - Tales of the American Empire
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