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Truth and falsehood behind Okinawa Bases (Part 1): Marines play no part in Japan’s sea lane defense

  • 2016-02-02 15:00:00
  • , Ryukyu Shimpo
  • Translation

(Ryukyu Shimpo: January 31, 2016 – p. 1 and 3)

 

 Okinawa hosts 74% of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Some people try to justify Okinawa’s base-hosting burden by emphasizing the practicality of the bases, the prefecture’s economic needs, and historical background. These arguments give rise to misunderstandings about the basic issues facing Okinawa. This article delves into the truth and falsehoods behind the U.S bases in the island prefecture.

 

 In December, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani emphasized in his interview with media outlets that “Okinawa is located in proximity to our sea lane and its geographical location is extremely important for national security.” He argued that U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa conduct sea-lane defense operations, which is why it is necessary to relocate the U.S. Marines Futenma Air Station to Henoko, Nago, not outside the island prefecture or Japan.

 

 Sea lane defense covers such operations as dispatching missile- or torpedo-loaded submarines, removing underwater mines, and securing control of the airspace in the vicinity in the event of a sea blockade and other contingencies imposed by a hostile nation. These missions are conducted by the naval and air forces.

 

 In contrast, the Marines are mainly responsible for launching assault attacks from the sea by disembarking infantry units on helicopters or amphibious vehicles. They are also tasked with conducting special missions, such as suppressing enemies on the ground. Sea lane defense activities are aimed at preventing naval blockades. Experts have raised questions about the Marines’ role in this respect.

 

 The central and the Okinawa governments are at odds over the reality of the “deterrence” that the Marines in Okinawa can provide and the justifiability of a plan to construct a replacement facility in Henoko. In preparatory documents submitted to court for a lawsuit related to the Henoko plan, the Okinawa government argues that the U.S. Seventh Fleet (U.S. Navy) is “best positioned” to conduct sea lane defense as it is capable of handling anti-submarine operations. It emphasizes that “there are no rational grounds presented to explain the necessity of sea lane defense and the stationing of transport aircraft of the Marines in Okinawa,” and concludes that there is little connection between the stationing of the Marines in Okinawa and sea lane defense.

 

 The central government, on the other hand, argues that sea lane defense is “not limited to anti-submarine operations and mine countermeasures operations.” It points out that [sea lane defense] covers bilateral and multilateral military exercises and support to countries located alongside sea lanes to help them step up their maritime guard capabilities. It emphasizes that the missions are “wide-ranging.”

 

 On the roles presented in its counterargument, the central government lays out abstract explanations by referring to the connection between the operation of the Marines and their missions. Among them it introduces one role of the Marines in concrete terms. “The U.S. Marines Corps, for example, carries out anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. They are performing their duty to secure the safety of sea lanes.”

 

 Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are currently conducting convoy missions to protect commercial ships travelling the Gulf of Aden, which lies between the Middle East and Africa, together with other countries’ militaries and private security firms.

 

 In fact, the U.S. Marines attacked a cargo ship hijacked by pirates before dawn and successfully retook it in 2010. But the mission was conducted by no more than 24 soldiers from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which is based in Camp Pendleton on the West Coast of the U.S. Nakatani advocates Okinawa’s “geographical supremacy,” but this is hard to fathom under a scenario in which the Marines in Okinawa travel all the way to the Middle East and Africa to join anti-piracy operations there.

 

 Meanwhile, no pirates are conducting activities that will threaten Japan’s sea lane in the waters near Okinawa, which, as Nakatani puts it, is located “in proximity to our sea lane.”

 

 In September 2014, the U.S. Central Command (USCENTOCOM), which oversees the Middle East and Africa, formed a Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) under its control to carry out special missions. The unit is manned by 2,300 personnel. The size is equivalent to that of the 31st MEU in Okinawa (manned by about 2,000), which performs special tasks, including humanitarian assistance, in the event of crises and natural disasters.

 

 As long as the local operational unit based in the Middle East and Africa exists, it makes more sense that the SPMAGTF will spearhead anti-piracy operations in the event of contingencies off Somalia.

 

 Meanwhile, the U.S. Marines are moving forward with a plan to transfer operational units in Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii, Australia, and other places. This means that they are trying to set up MEUs and SPMAGTFs across the world to diversify the functions of dealing with crises and small-scale conflicts and carrying out special missions. The diversification of the Okinawa forces suggests that the Marines in Okinawa are narrowing their range of defense.

 

 The government argues that the relocation of the Futenma airfield to Henoko is essential to protect Japan’s sea lane. But could a situation that poses Japan’s sea lane at greater risk actually happen in the waters near Okinawa? And if that is the case, could the Marines in Okinawa be tasked with handling such a situation?

 

 Shuji Taoka, a military affairs pundit, analyzes contingencies in the South China Sea as follows:

 “It is not clear whether the South China Sea can be identified as the ‘waters near Okinawa,’ but given that the Kadena Air Base already sends P-3 patrol aircraft to the South China Sea, it is true that it could be identified as the waters near Okinawa. If naval vessels from such countries as China, the Philippines and Vietnam were to clash in the South China Sea, Japanese commercial ships might avoid passage there due to possible danger.”

 

 Taoka completely ruled out the possibility of the Marines in Okinawa responding to such a contingency. “The Navy would be responsible. The Marines are responsible for ground combat so they would basically take no part in this.”

 

 Japan imports about 80% of crude oil via the East and South China Sea. For this resource-scarce country, the South China Sea is a key shipping route. What if transportation via the South China Sea were disrupted due to a contingency? Would that make it impossible for Japan to import natural resources?

 

 “Even if the waterway via the South China Sea were disrupted due to a conflict, ships could traverse the Lombok Strait, east of Indonesia’s Bali Island, and travel toward the east of the Philippines to Japan,” Taoka said.

 

 According to Taoka, it costs about 1 yen per liter for a massive tanker to ship crude oil from the Persian Gulf to Tokyo via the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the transportation cost via the Lombok Strait is about 0.1 yen higher than using the South China Sea route. But once the oil arrives in Japan, it costs about 10 yen per liter to distribute refined oil to gas stations in Tokyo.

 

 “Oil prices are affected by foreign exchange rates and transactions in the oil market and they fluctuate by the liter,” said Taoka. “A change in about ‘0.1 yen’ as a result of bypassing a sea lane would not affect overall prices at all.”

 

 In June, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was asked about the possibility of Japan exercising the right to collective self-defense if mines were placed in the South China Sea at a meeting of the House of Representatives’ special committee on the security legislation. He responded by saying: “There are various detour routes in the South China Sea so the situation there is greatly different from in the Strait of Hormuz,” expressing the acknowledgement that the laying of mines in the South China Sea would not be a situation that would pose a high risk to Japan’s survival. (Slightly abridged)

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