Thirty years after reversion to Japan, the U.S. Marine bases on Okinawa remain a contentious issue. Periodic calls for their reduction or elimination may be good politics, and offer academics and other commentators the satisfaction that they are taking a “progressive” stance on the issue.

But substantially reducing the Marine presence will do little or nothing to improve U.S.-Japan security relations, to revive Okinawa’s economy, or to make up for Okinawa’s years of second-class treatment by the national government. It will, however, degrade America’s Asian security strategy and blur perceptions of its military commitment to the Pacific region.

Okinawa-based Marine forces are somehow seen as less necessary than Japan-based U.S. air and naval forces. Despite evidence to the contrary, air and naval power advocates have long promised single-handed, bloodless victory if given a big enough share of the defense budget. During the Persian Gulf War, a six-week bombing campaign and a naval blockade still required ground troops to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The subsequent decade of naval and aerial blockade enforcing U.N. sanctions has not brought Saddam Hussein to heel. More recently, in Kosovo, only the threat of ground intervention — after a month of air strikes that were less effective than advertised — forced a Yugoslav withdrawal.

Modern war is a combined-arms activity. The most effective and least costly approach combines air, ground and sea capabilities. Each can do what the other cannot. The Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) on Okinawa and mainland Japan is the only immediately deployable ground force in a massive operational area stretching from Hawaii to Africa.

In war and other contingencies (especially humanitarian intervention, disaster relief, peacekeeping operations and noncombatant evacuations) you must have people on the ground to seize terrain, to engage enemy forces, or to aid and assist people. This cannot be accomplished by simply sending ships to cruise offshore or planes to fly overhead.

Some commentators argue that there are not enough Marines on Okinawa to make a difference in the event of a major war in Asia. Besides the fact that even a small number of troops can make a difference, this argument overlooks the fact that in the event of a more serous contingency, Japan-based Marines are intended to be employed as part of a larger effort involving forces from overseas. Arguments focusing on high-intensity warfare also miss the Marines’ broader operational role, focusing instead on the most drastic (and least likely) possible contingency.

Proposals for “rearranging Okinawa” include relocation to Guam, the “koban” scheme, the “virtual presence” solution and prepositioning. None of these offer a real solution.

Guam has some attractive features, but its training areas are inadequate to serve as a replacement for Okinawa. Also, a Marine move to Guam could be seen as a sign of diminished U.S. commitment to Asia.

The “koban” scheme would disperse Marines in small groups throughout Asia. Even if politically secure basing areas could be obtained — which is highly doubtful — this scheme diffuses Marine combat power to the point it could not be reconstituted without a major, time-consuming effort.

The “virtual presence” solution calls for rotating Marines through the region for training, without actually having any bases in the area. However, without a single location serving as a “center of gravity” from which Marine power is seen to derive, there would always be something ephemeral about its presence.

The prepositioning school of thought claims the Marines only need to have supplies staged on Okinawa, with troops flying out in the event of crisis. However, it is a truism that it is better to be located and to train in the region where you operate. Also, pre-staged supplies and forward-based troops are viewed differently. One is a vague promise of intervention, the other is a near certainty.

The fundamental argument against the Marines in Okinawa is that the island seethes with resentment over the Marine bases. However, recent surveys indicate a majority of Okinawans at least tolerate them. Even at the height of the antibase movement in 1995, the stridently antimilitary Governor was hard pressed to draw much beyond 55 percent of the vote, and a few years later lost to a moderate candidate.

Of course there are problems on Okinawa. A substantial portion of the population still opposes U.S. bases, and even those who are “probase” intensely resent periodic misbehavior by Marines and other U.S. personnel and want the bases consolidated. The Marines are already working in this direction and the maddening inability to eliminate troop misbehavior needs even more attention. However, Okinawa’s underlying problem is a depressed economy that has always lagged behind the main islands.

A Marine departure will not suddenly improve Okinawa’s economy. Nor will Okinawans forget that they have not always been dealt a fair hand by the central government. A targeted effort is needed to allow Okinawa to strengthen its economy, beyond Tokyo-funded public works projects and tourism. Instead, Okinawa needs to be allowed to chart a separate economic course, taking advantage of its location, its skilled, well-educated work force and its stable government to attract domestic and foreign business. A “one country, two systems” scheme has been put forth by various commentators and deserves to be implemented.

Forward-basing arrangements need constant review. However, decisions need to be based on accurate assessments and should not preserve parochial service interests at the expense of operational requirements. Basing a substantial number of Marines on Okinawa is both necessary and sustainable.

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