YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – The Marine Corps plans to reinvigorate a program slowed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that deploys U.S.-based units to Okinawa and other parts of the Pacific on six-month rotations.
Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for combat development and integration, told reporters about plans to breathe new life into the Unit Deployment Program during a Thursday morning teleconference.
“There will be Marines rotating to the West Pacific as they did in the past,” he said of the program, which involves infantry and aviation units on unaccompanied, six-month rotations to Okinawa.
The program slowed considerably in recent years as units that would have come to Japan were sent instead to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mills did not specify the number of Marines who would come to Okinawa over the next few years under the program but stated: “You will see more Marines in theater.”
Fully resuming the program would mean deploying three infantry battalions to Okinawa, but so far the Marine Corps plans to send just one battalion in late spring or early summer, a defense official said Thursday. That battaltion would add roughly 1,000 Marines to the 14,000 already on the island. The Marine Corps’ security agreement with Japan allows 18,000 Marines, the official said.
In 2003, more than 5,000 of the 17,000 Marines on Okinawa were deployed under the program.
Mills said units coming to Okinawa under the program would move throughout the region to participate in exercises. He did not state where the exercises would be held, but the U.S. regularly does large-scale training alongside troops from the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Australia.
And starting this year, Marines will rotate to the northern Australian city of Darwin for six months at a time. The Darwin deployments will start with a company-size element, increasing to a battalion-strength group of 1,000 by 2014 and the 2,500-strong Air Ground Task Force by 2016, according to Australian press reports.
The plan to reinvigorate the program comes as the U.S. and Japan continue negotiations to move to Guam thousands of Marines and family members permanently based on Okinawa.