NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Okinawa residents appear increasingly hopeful that the U.S. military presence here will be scaled back amid a global U.S. force realignment.
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine describes the U.S. plans as “one chance” to reduce the burden on the prefecture.
The U.S. Marine Corps headquarters is located at Camp Foster (Camp Zukeran) in Kitanakagusuku.
Some 16,000 troops of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force are based there under the command of Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman.
The MEF, the corps’ sole operational force permanently stationed outside the U.S., is in charge of keeping a close eye on the tense situations on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait.
The infantry and other corps, sent from the U.S. to the camp on six-month rotations, now include troops who have taken part in the Iraq war.
But according to marine sources, most of them spend only two to three months in Okinawa because an increasing number of training exercises are now being held overseas and on Japan’s mainland, indicating the actual number of troops is about 10,000.
The marines began chartering a 100-meter-long high-speed catamaran from a private Australian enterprise three years ago to send troops to South Korea and Southeast Asia for training.
The ship can carry 152 high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and a 970-member infantry battalion at up to 66 kph.
Maj. Samuel Howard welcomes the new arrangement, saying: “Until we hired this ship, we went out of Okinawa for training and exercises by taking planes from Kadena Air Base. In that case, we have to talk and arrange the schedule with the air force.
“And the best thing is, we can carry more vehicles and cargo at a time with this ship.”
This month, the marine corps sent three of its four infantry battalions, numbering 3,000 troops, to Iraq.
Blackman denied that this indicated a permanent troop cut, saying the dispatch was a temporary measure.
Although he did say: “Deterrence is more than numbers. What is valuable here beyond sheer numbers is capabilities.”
Satoshi Morimoto, a professor on security affairs at Takushoku University, said there will be no major cut in the U.S. military in Japan under the planned realignment.
“The U.S. burden on Okinawa is too heavy,” he said. “The U.S. may want to continue stationing marines in Okinawa but use them the Asia-Pacific region,” indicating troops may be dispersed overseas, while maintaining emergency countermeasure functions in Okinawa.