Solving the Okinawa Problem

How many Marines do we still need in Japan?


In recent weeks the U.S. Marine Corps has begun to deploy the V-22 Osprey to Okinawa, Japan. The Osprey flies like a propeller plane but can take off and land like a helicopter, providing more speed than the latter but more tactical flexibility than the former. It has also reignited the long-standing debate between Japan and the United States over the future of the Marines’ presence on Okinawa. Critics have called the airplane unsafe and demanded its redeployment back to the United States. While flight data do not confirm this specific allegation, policymakers in Tokyo and Washington do need to realize they have an even bigger problem — and search for a new, less intrusive way of basing Marines on this small island at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago.

The question of the Marines on Okinawa has been contentious for some two decades now. Numbering between 15,000 and 20,000 at a time there, they have constituted more than a third of the U.S. military presence in Japan, on an overpopulated island that itself represents well under 1 percent of the Japanese landmass. On top of those Marines, another 10,000 or so Air Force personnel continue to be based at the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa as well. The Marines have been resented locally not only for their sheer numbers, but for Air Station Futenma, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and schools in the city of Ginowan. The occasional accident there has put anxiety into the hearts of many who fear a worse accident in the future; moreover, as Okinawa is one of Japan’s only prefectures actually growing in population, local officials want the land for other purposes.

There is a lot to say in defense of the Marine Corps, as well as the U.S. position, starting with the fact that these forces serve common alliance interests in a stable Asia-Pacific region. Washington has tried to work with Tokyo to relocate the base, the most recent proposal being to build an airfield on the shore of Henoko Bay farther north in a much less populated part of Okinawa. But Japanese national and local politics have repeatedly gotten in the way. In 2006, the United States and Japan agreed to relocate almost half the Okinawa-based Marines to Guam in the coming years to relieve pressure on Okinawa. And regarding the Osprey in particular, though it has suffered some famous accidents, as of August it had been statistically safer over its lifetime than the average Marine Corps aircraft. According to Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon, it has had a 20 percent lower rate of serious accidents per flight hour than the typical Marine helicopter or other aircraft — though admittedly its two recent crashes merit further public discussion to relieve understandable anxieties on Okinawa.

All that said, the current relocation scheme appears stuck in the morass of Okinawan politics. This June, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s ruling coalition failed to win a majority in the prefectural assembly election. That fact puts him on the defensive. Given the public discontent about the Osprey deployment, the governor has little choice but to push harder in resolving the Futenma issue — without, alas, approving the Henoko site — as well as opposing the Osprey deployment.

There is another problem with the Marine Corps’ plan for the region, concerning the airfield construction plan combined with the partial relocation to Guam. None of this is the fault of the Marine Corps, which has sought in good faith to find a plan that works for all. Alas, in addition to the political challenges the plan faces, it is also now associated with a price tag estimated by the Government Accountability Office to be up to $30 billion, split roughly equally between Tokyo and Washington. This at a time when sequestration threatens to lop another 10 percent off future Pentagon budgets, on top of the nearly 10 percent cut already in effect from the 2011 Budget Control Act.

There is a cheaper, simpler, more promising way. It would bring more Marines home to the United States, where downsizing in the years ahead will free up space at stateside Marine Corps bases, and compensate by predeploying supplies in the broader Pacific region. This latter step would cost some money, but nowhere near the $30 billion saved by jettisoning the current plan, and it could be funded largely by Japan (since the United States would be helping the Japanese solve a local problem). Futenma would ultimately be closed, but first provisions would be made for limited Marine Corps use of other airfields on the main island of Okinawa and perhaps on smaller islands in the prefecture as well — together with full access to such facilities in times of crisis or war.

Specifically, we would suggest leaving only 5,000 to 8,000 Marines on Okinawa and bringing the rest back to places like Camp Pendleton, California, rather than building new facilities for them on Guam. The United States would then station prepositioning ships with weapons and supplies for several thousand Marines in Japanese waters (to complement existing similar capabilities now already at ports in Guam) in order to allow the Marines who had been relocated stateside to return rapidly to the Western Pacific in a crisis. In addition, Marines based in the United States would rotate regularly to the Asia-Pacific region to conduct exercises with friends and allies, including Japan.

Regarding airfields, we would counsel the following changes. Follow through promptly on the commitment to close Futenma and return the land to local control. To replace some functions of Futenma, build a modest helipad inside an existing Marine Corps base on the northern half of the island, where Okinawa-based Marines do most of their training now, so the logistical implications may be minimal (or even net positive).

In addition, by agreement with Tokyo and the Okinawan prefectural government, the United States would seek authority to conduct some Marine Corps fixed-wing flights at the Kadena Air Base if necessary, provided the total number of takeoff and landings at that base decreases. To ensure that Kadena does not become busier on a day-to-day basis, the United States should base some Air Force planes now at Kadena elsewhere in peacetime — like Misawa in northern Japan, or even Guam. Finally, Japan could build a second runway at Naha international airport, which would aid the island’s economy in peacetime and provide more capacity for U.S. and Japanese military use in crises or war.*

This plan is win-win-win. It saves money for both allies. It actually improves U.S. responsiveness to possible regional crises. And it finally extracts the United States from the quagmire that the Japanese and alliance politics of this issue have become.

The United States and Japan have been bogged down by the Okinawa issue too long. The precious time and talent of policymakers have gone toward trying to solve a problem that has become almost insoluble. We need to look at this problem anew, address it, and finally move beyond it. The American defense budget crunch may be just the final impetus needed to motivate policymakers to fresh thinking and decisive action.


* Correction: The original version of this sentence incorrectly suggested that Naha international airport already has two runways.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola