Reality Check: Is This Base Even Necessary?

Above photo: Protesters link hands encircling Futenma Base. From Japan Focus.

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Okinawa, Japan – The Okinawa Prefectural Government has chosen Nago City as the site for relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma. Since no decision has been made as to whether the base will be constructed on a sea-borne platform or on reclaimed land offshore, the cost is as yet unknown. However, the Defense Agency has previously estimated that it will cost approximately one trillion yen (around ten billion dollars) and take ten years to build. Amidst a deepening budget crisis, during which Japanese government expenditures have necessitated the issuing of 334 trillion yen (about 3.3 trillion dollars) in government bonds, it is essential to consider whether sinking such a massive sum into building this new base will have any real value for Japan’s security.

The main force of U.S. Marines in Okinawa, the 3rd Marine Division, has long been in a “skeletonized” state. The 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions based in the continental U.S. have a combined total of nine infantry battalions, four artillery battalions, fifty-eight tanks, and approximately three-hundred assault and light armored vehicles. By contrast, the 3rd Marine Division has only three infantry battalions, one artillery battalion, no tanks, and very few assault and light armored vehicles. It is thus a “division” in name only.

A “Ghost” Division

Furthermore, the 3rd Marine Division has virtually no organic (self-contained) unit with combat capability. All of its armored and infantry forces, and most of its artillery troops, are rotated into Okinawa at six-month intervals from the 1st and 2nd Divisions in the U.S. With only its headquarters anywhere near fully staffed, it is more like a “ghost” division. And, like its troops, the approximately forty helicopters of various types in its 36th Marine Air Squadron, now at Futenma, are also rotated in from the U.S. at regular intervals.

The primary reason for the 3rd Marine Division’s “ghostly” state is a lack of transport capability. The U.S. Navy has a total of forty-three amphibious ships for deploying Marines, but all of these together can carry, at most, slightly less than a full division. Twenty-two of these ships are based in the Pacific, but only four are in Japan, at Sasebo (near Nagasaki). The remaining eighteen are at San Diego, and in an emergency would be used to deploy part of the 1st Marine Division stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton, California. It would make absolutely no sense for these ships to abandon the Marine’s elite 1st Division and sail instead to Okinawa to pick up the 3rd Marine Division.

For emergency deployments of American troops, the Air Force’s large transport planes are used to move units of the Army’s U.S.-based 82nd Airborne Division and its equipment. For Marine deployments from Okinawa, even using all of the approximately six KC-130 medium-sized aerial refueling planes now at Futenma and the approximately ten Air Force medium-sized C-130 transport planes at Yokota Air Base (near Tokyo), only a few hundred troops with their weapons and equipment could be moved at one time. And, since most of the Marines’ helicopters have a continuous flight range of only about 320 miles, it would be impossible to fly troops in these aircraft directly from Okinawa to such potential trouble spots as South Korea (800 miles), Taiwan (480 miles), or Kyushu (480 miles) without “island-hopping.”

It is precisely because the U.S. military is fully aware of these problems that the 3rd Marine Division remains a “division” in name only.

Why Are the Americans There?

In 1990, when planning was underway to abolish the 3rd Marine Division, the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific visited the Department of Defense to discuss arrangements for the pull-out to Hawaii. However, in March of that same year, Major General Henry C. Stackpole, then Commander of the U.S. Marines in Japan (including the 3rd Division), told the Washington Post that if U.S. forces were withdrawn, Japan would vastly expand its already formidable military. In a desperate effort to save his division on the brink of extinction, he described American troops as the “cork in the bottle” to prevent revived Japanese militarism from leaping forth.

Japan pays the U.S. some 600 billion yen (about six billion dollars) every year as part of its so-called “sympathy budget,” covering base-related construction, services, maintenance, and local employees’ compensation, as well as the rental on lands occupied by the U.S. bases. If, in fact, American forces are in Japan to prevent the country from becoming a major military power, this practice is tantamount to prisoners paying the salaries of their guards.

Thus, the U.S. military’s explanation for their presence in Japan does not go down well in the “host country.” An April 1999 public opinion survey conducted jointly by polling organizations in both countries and published in the Asahi Shimbun, revealed that 49% of the Americans responding also said that the purpose of stationing U.S. forces in Japan was “to prevent it [Japan] from becoming a major military power.” Only 12% said it was “to protect Japan.” Such wariness on the part of the American public toward Japan provided the marines with a golden opportunity in 1990 for their “organized defense” of their division in Okinawa.

Two years later, thanks to suspicions that surfaced in 1992 about North Korea’s nuclear development, the 3rd Division’s existence was given a further lease on life because of what was claimed to be its “deterrent effect” on North Korea. But this claim is highly suspect. In South Korea, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division is positioned north of Seoul. Should the North Korean Army launch a “final thrust” south, it would collide with the U.S. Army and invite a total response from the American military, wreaking devastation that would bring a certain end to the country’s current structure and leadership. Were the North Koreans ever to act with such suicidal abandon, the Marines in Okinawa, 1100 miles from the battlefront, would have neither the power to deter them nor the transport to join the battle.

The Marines Are Not in Okinawa to Defend Japan

Since it is virtually inconceivable that the U.S. would wage a ground war on the Chinese mainland, it is highly doubtful that the Marines glaring at China from Okinawa have any effect on that nation’s policymakers. Even supposing the American military were to help in the defense of Taiwan, U.S. naval and air power is fully sufficient. At a Senate committee hearing in 1982, then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was asked if the Marines were necessary for the defense of Japan. He answered definitively that the Marines were not in Okinawa for the defense of Japan, but for deployments in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. This makes perfect sense, considering that marines are a military force designed specifically for long-distance missions, and clearly not suitable in Okinawa for defending Japan.

Realistically speaking, the one marine force in Japan potentially valuable is the 31st Expeditionary Marine Unit of approximately 2,000 troops and twenty helicopters that can be deployed on the four amphibious ships based at Sasebo. It would surely be feasible for that number of aircraft to be accommodated at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa or at the Marine Corps’ air base at Iwakuni (near Hiroshima). This was, in fact, part of Japan’s original proposal during the negotiations three years ago for the return of Futenma. And since the Japanese government is paying 70% of all the expenses of stationing U.S. forces in its country, one assumes it must have some sort of negotiating leverage.

The U.S.-Japanese alliance is founded on mutually perceived threats. With the end of the Cold War and the drastic hollowing out of Russia’s military, this foundation has been seriously weakened. If more weight is added to this already tottering edifice, it will totter even more. If, on the other hand, post-Cold War burdens are lightened for both countries, the alliance will surely last longer. At a time when the regular semi-annual bonus of every government employee in Japan is being cut by an average of 170,000 yen (about $1,700), spending a trillion yen (about ten billion dollars) on the construction of a new military base in Okinawa can only have an adverse effect on maintaining the alliance.

SHUNJI TAOKA is the military correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun, where this article originally appeared on December 14, 1999. It was translated for JPRI by Steve Rabson. Articles by both Shunji Taoka and Steve Rabson can also be found in JPRI’s new book, Okinawa: Cold War Island.