The U.S. Marines deployed in Japan play a critical role. Of course, the contributions to peace and stability made by the members of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force stationed here are also significant, but the Marine Corps deserves special mention partly because the service has a unique amphibious mission best suited for the western Pacific. More importantly, it is because the Marines, in the middle of a historic organizational transformation, seem to be finding new missions at sea.
Critics have often claimed that the Marines based in Okinawa are not there for the defense of Japan. In fact, over the past three decades, the Marines were at times absent in Japan when they were deployed elsewhere, in particular to the Middle East. Those days, however, seem to be over. The Marines are returning to the waters in this part of the world.
This conclusion is based on the March 5 congressional testimony by U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger on the fiscal 2021 budget before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He talked about modernizing the U.S. Marine Corps for the era of great power competition.
Having read testimonies given by the U.S. military establishment as director of Japan-U.S. security treaty affairs at the Foreign Ministry, Berger’s testimony struck me as among of the most important not only for the Marine Corps but also for Japan. The following is my take:
1. The Marines’ mission is different from that of the U.S. Army.
After working on Japan-U.S. alliance affairs for almost a decade, twice in Tokyo for more than five years and then more than three years in Washington, I was sent in 2004 to Baghdad, where I was seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority as a representative of the Japanese government.
There I met a Marine major — based in Okinawa — who had escorted a local Iraqi tribe chief from Fallujah to my office. I had never imagined that I would see a Marine in Baghdad. He was part of the postwar program to rebuild Iraq, but this was hardly a mission for the Marines based in Okinawa.
2. Is the U.S. Marine Corps an independent military service?
No. Organizationally it is part of the U.S. Department of the Navy. It is uniquely organized for conducting expeditionary and amphibious operations. During World War II, especially in the Pacific theater, the Marines took the lead in a large-scale amphibious island-hopping campaign.
For such missions the Marine Corps has its own ground and air units, consisting of not only light tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery, but also attack helicopters and short takeoff/vertical landing fighter jets. Now the Marines are, as Berger testified, divesting all of their tank units as part of the reform.
3. Will the Marines sink enemy vessels in future wars?
In his Senate testimony, the commandant said that “the strategic environment has changed significantly and we are now in an era of great power competition” and that the Marines must “create true readiness — operationally relevant and available naval forces that create ‘overmatch’ over anticipated adversaries.”
The adversary he has in mind is, of course, China. In the next fiscal year the Marines will procure 48 land-based Tomahawk missiles. Berger said it is “one of the tools for the Marine Corps to assume the role of sea control and sea denial.”
“A ground-based anti-ship missile capability will provide anti-ship fires from land as part of an integrated naval anti-surface warfare campaign,” the general said in this testimony. The Marines are back in the Pacific and one of their new potential missions will be to sink Chinese vessels with Tomahawks and other missiles.
4. Will the Marines fight alone?
No. If China’s so-called A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy is aimed at forcing the United States and its allies to stay away from the waters around China’s Pacific coast, there are many countries and entities, including Japan and Taiwan, that share the same concerns about Beijing’s strategic intentions.
Tokyo will not let the U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy fight alone. On the contrary, the Self-Defense Forces are also reinforcing their own land-based anti-ship missile units on Japan’s southern islands to deter China’s naval power in the region. Taiwan, if not the Philippines, may follow suit.
5. Can the Marines continue their mission in Japan?
Americans say “All politics is local” and domestic elements are important. For the Marine Corps to transform itself to cope with a potential threat in the era of great power competition and to make itself combat-ready in the western Pacific, the Marines must continue to win the hearts and minds of their local neighbors.
One of the means to win popular support in such places as Okinawa may be to seriously consider making the U.S. facilities and areas “joint use” with their Japanese counterparts. Such measures may alleviate local frustration among the Okinawans and enhance “jointness” of Japan-U.S. amphibious operations.
Once a Marine, always a Marine, they say. After three decades of fighting in the deserts of the Middle East, the U.S. Marines are returning to East Asian maritime domains. Japan wholeheartedly welcomes the Marines back and is committed to do its best to make their operations as smooth as possible, no matter how hard it may be.
The Marines Corps have been and will always be an amphibious force and are a natural ally for Japan. It is sincerely hoped that the ongoing organizational reform of the Marine Corps will be successful so that the regional allies of the U.S. can better work with Washington to maintain peace and stability in the region’s waters.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.