CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The United States plans to add thousands of Marines to bases on Okinawa, swelling the ranks here to levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, even as Washington works with Japan on a new agreement to reduce the controversial American military presence on the island, the Department of Defense has confirmed.
Existing units will be filled to maximum potential and a unit deployment program will rotate in troops to boost the number of Marines on Okinawa from an average of 15,700 since the late 1990s to around 19,000 in advance of any eventual drawdown on the island, according to a senior DOD official who works closely on the issue and was authorized to speak on background.
Yet that number would be nearly double the size of the force of 10,000 Marines that U.S. and Japanese negotiators agreed to in April, after years of stalled efforts to reduce the American footprint on Okinawa. No timetable for reaching that reduced end-state number was specified in the agreement.
“Yes, in the near-term there will be an increase in the actual number of Marines on the island,” the DOD official said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “The authorized strengths of those units [on Okinawa] are between 19,000 and 20,000 today. … As the Marines come back from Afghanistan, we expect the number of Marines on Okinawa at any one time will be close to that number.”
Filling out the forces on the island is a natural progression as combat operations end and troops begin returning to units that may have been depleted of personnel for the past decade, the official said.
Newly available Marines who are returning from Afghanistan as well as rotational deployments will be a key to adding the thousands of troops.
Additionally, about 800 Marines from Hawaii are expected to begin rotations to Okinawa this summer as the Marine Corps unit deployment program ramps up again after being dormant for the past decade, according to Capt. Gregory Wolf, a Marine Corps spokesman. The number of Marines who take part in the future still depends upon operations winding down in Afghanistan, Wolf wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
News of the planned increase in Marines on Okinawa has apparently not been shared with Okinawa officials.
“If the U.S. military is planning to increase the number of Marines on Okinawa to the fullest of the authorized number, it owes Okinawa a clear and proper explanation,” said Susumu Matayoshi, director-general of the executive office of the Okinawa governor. “It is unacceptable if the increase is decided behind our back.”
Matayoshi added that Okinawa residents and officials have long held serious reservations about the size of Marine force stationed here because it shifts without any local input or explanation from the United States.
This year’s agreement to eventually reduce the number of Marines on the island was the latest attempt by the U.S. and Japanese governments to appease the Okinawans, who have protested for generations over the large number of U.S. bases here as well as aircraft noise and the occasional crimes committed by military personnel.
However, until the realignment is accomplished, the Marine presence on Okinawa will be pumped up as part of a massive American military pivot into the Pacific region.
Since late last year, the military has begun pursuing new deployments and bases in Australia, Singapore and Guam to shore up security in a key trading zone and provide a counterweight to the rise of China following a decade of wars. Now, Okinawa is also set to see a surge in troop levels as well.
Last year, there were 15,365 Marines deployed to the island – the highest number by far since 2004, according to the most recent annual U.S. force numbers reported to the Okinawa prefectural government.
The Defense Department now wants to fill out the force to meet the maximum authorized number of Marines, which is a force size decided by military planners, who weigh unit and security needs. The authorized size of the force has also been included in the U.S. security pact with Japan and in the negotiations on the Marine realignment.
The last time the island hosted the planned 19,000 to 20,000 Marines was in 1989, at the close of the Cold War, and forces have steadily shrunk over the past two decades. The number of Marines fell to about 15,000 by the end of the 1990s and then as low as 12,400 during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the annual force numbers show.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, said the DOD plans to increase force strength before the drawdown do not appear to be in line with the stated U.S. and Japanese efforts to move troops and bases off Okinawa.
“The question is, ‘Why do [the Marines] need to be redeployed to Okinawa given plans to more or less redistribute Marines to Guam?’ ” Kingston said.
Bruce Klingner, a senior Northeast Asia research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, said it is not surprising that units would be regaining strength on Okinawa following the wars.
The island remains a critical stage for U.S. forces in the Pacific and Marine forces are typically very fluid around the world compared to other military branches, Klingner said.
He said the public should not focus on the “wrong numbers” – the actual count of Marines in recent years -- but instead on the total potential of troops on the island when judging the realignment plans.
“There will be those in Okinawa who will be looking for a conspiracy,” he said. “The reality is you move Marines in units.”
No deadline has yet been set for the relocation of the Marines off the island, and key components are still unplanned or undecided.
Many of the Marines are expected to be moved to Guam, but the U.S. has not completed required environmental studies or decided what facilities might be needed, a process that is expected to take at least two years. It could potentially take even longer to build the facilities needed to host the Marines.
The DOD also has yet to decide what will be done with another 4,000 Marines who are supposed to be redeployed off of Okinawa, despite media reports that they may be moved to Hawaii or rotated through Australia, the official told Stars and Stripes.