What is worth fighting for? Which “national interests” are worth American lives? At the end of the day, this is the yardstick for measuring the necessity of U.S. military involvement around the world. In any region where the answer is “none,” U.S. forces should be pulled out. In any region where the answer is “some,” U.S. forces should be tailored to defend those specific interests from likely threats. Leading with a clear enunciation of real national interests—instead of groupthink, historical precedent, or inertia—opens up an array of locations where the U.S. military can do less without an adverse effect on American security. Okinawa is a prime example. As U.S.-Japan bilateral defense cooperation continues to improve, not only can the United States reduce its military presence on Okinawa without jeopardizing its interests in East Asia, but doing so will actually bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance.
This is not a new idea. The U.S. government is well aware of Okinawan opposition to the heavy military presence and has made moves for more than a decade to relocate Futenma base and redistribute around eight thousand of the eighteen thousand Marines on Okinawa to Australia, Guam, and Hawaii. Delays on both the Japanese and American sides in the construction of the new facilities have pushed estimates for the redeployment to the late 2020s. While this realignment is a step in the right direction, the assumptions behind even a force of ten thousand Marines on Okinawa deserve examination. Three possible conflict scenarios in East Asia sufficiently threaten U.S. national interests—be it freedom of navigation, anti-proliferation, or the security of an ally—to merit serious contemplation of an armed response: North Korea, the Senkakus, and Taiwan. Yet in assessing these contingencies, it is difficult to see how the Okinawa Marines would be operationally relevant.
First, if the United States and North Korea come to blows, what will be the role of amphibious warfare? U.S. Marines from Okinawa have practiced amphibious assaults with their South Korean counterparts at the annual Cobra Gold exercises, but the tactical utility of such an attack against North Korea is unclear. Presumably Allied forces could land on the beach some twenty-five miles from Pyongyang, seize Nampo to control access to the Taedong River, or blow up the Nampo Dam and travel sixty miles upriver to Pyongyang. But this type of attack likely plays to North Korea’s strengths (numbers and ground forces) and eschews U.S. advantages (air power and standoff weapons). Furthermore, amphibious assault implies a full invasion, and thus far more than ten thousand personnel. If such an attack were necessary, the United States would need time to bring in forces from around the world—what then is the advantage of having a few men pre-deployed? Equipment and materiel can be prepositioned across East Asia, but with strong U.S. airlift capabilities and Japan’s increasing willingness and ability to facilitate staging, it can be used by Marines permanently based elsewhere.
Second, the United States has affirmed that the disputed Senkaku Islands (only 270 miles from Okinawa Island) are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Yet in a scenario obligating the United States to aid Japan in fighting China for the islands, battles will be fought in the air or on the water. Combined, the five uninhabited islands and three rocks have a total area of less than three square miles. The Marines on Okinawa could respond rapidly to a Chinese seizure of the islands, but what would they do? Chinese troops would be easy targets for our air or naval strikes; we would be foolish to put our men in the same vulnerable position. Japan is also building its own capabilities to defend the Senkakus, including by creating an amphibious brigade with units on Ishigaki (only one hundred miles from the Senkakus). In a contingency where “boots on the ground” are needed, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces can take the lead and the United States can provide air and naval support to maintain escalation dominance.
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Third, Taiwan. Even setting aside the ambiguity of American commitment to Taiwan and assuming that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in a crisis, once again the battle would not be fought by Marines but in the Strait, in the air above it, and in cyberspace. In a fight for Taiwan, it is Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa that will be of greatest use to U.S. commanders. Even for an evacuation, the twenty-four V-22 Ospreys currently on Okinawa, each seating twenty-four , have clear numerical limitations. As with a North Korean contingency, there is also no plausible scenario necessitating pre-deployed forces. The Taiwan Relations Act mandates that a decision to defend Taiwan receive consent from Congress; if a combat need for Marines is found, there will be time to bring them to the region before operations begin.