GINOWAN, Okinawa — The commander of Marines in the Pacific said the Corps’ air operations should remain on Okinawa to support Marines who will not be among those relocating to Guam.
Speaking at the Tokyo American Center on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder said basing Marines on Okinawa is essential to regional security and the defense of Japan.
Stalder described the Marine Corps as a "rapidly deployable branch of the U.S. military and the only forward-deployed and available U.S. ground force between Hawaii and India" and said it "must be based on Okinawa and must have its helicopters near its ground forces," according to a U.S. embassy video recording of his speech posted online.
About 17,000 Marines currently serve at 10 installations on Okinawa, with 3,000 assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma units. About 8,600 Marines are to be relocated to Guam under a 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement to reduce the military footprint on Okinawa. The island lies about 1,450 miles southeast of Okinawa.
Stalder said removing Marine air units from Okinawa, as has been suggested by some Japanese officials, would pose serious problems to a rapid response by remaining ground units to contingencies in the Far East.
"Geography matters," Stalder said.
Japan’s new left-center government is reviewing the 2006 agreement, which calls for closing Futenma after a new air facility on the island’s more rural northeast shore at Camp Schwab is built.
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama formed the committee late last year to review the agreement and investigate whether alternate sites would be more acceptable. During the election campaign in August he spoke against the Camp Schwab project, and the minority parties of his ruling coalition have also called for the project to be scrapped.
The Social Democratic Party has threatened to leave the coalition if the Marines remain on Okinawa, while the People’s New Party advocates moving them to Kadena and a part of Camp Schwab away from the waters of Oura Bay.
Officials in Hatoyama’s majority Democratic Party of Japan are split on the issue.
Stalder said the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan, which has enjoyed stability and economic success in part because of the alliance. Japan, in return, is obliged to provide the bases for U.S. troops, he said.
"I want to make this clear," he said in the embassy video. "All of the Marines standing in this room, all of my Marines on Okinawa, are willing to die if necessary for the security of Japan. That is our role in the alliance. Japan does not have a reciprocal obligation to defend the United States, but it absolutely must provide the bases and training that U.S. forces need."