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GSDF and Marine Corps search for new ways to cooperate through EABO

By Sugimoto Yasushi


The Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) and the U.S. Marine Corps are seeking to develop a new “style of battle” to counter China in the event of a Taiwan contingency in which warfare spreads to remote islands in Okinawa. Coordinating the GSDF’s reinforced defense of the Nansei Islands and the Marine Corps’ operational concept “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO)” will be key. On-the-ground training is indispensable to strengthen cooperation between Japan and the U.S., but political barriers are presenting an obstacle.


About 40 members of the GSDF and the Marine Corps gathered in a tent. The 100 sq. m. tent was a ground tactics coordination station, which is the heart of Japan-U.S. cooperation in “Resolute Dragon 21,” a joint exercise of the GSDF and the Marine Corps. The station is located at the GSDF’s Ojojihara Maneuver Area, which straddles three towns and villages, including Shikama Town, Miyagi Prefecture. The station was opened to the press on Dec. 8.


“We look forward to coordinating everything here so our two countries can fight together,” said Col. Matthew Tracy, the commander of the 4th Marine Regiment based in Camp Schwab. The GSDF members nodded in response. 


In the Dec. 8 exercise, the GSDF’s radar, the U.S. military’s reconnaissance satellite, and P8 patrol aircraft searched for enemy ships and shared information via the ground tactics coordination station. The scenario was that the GSDF fired its Type 88 surface-to-ship guided missile at enemy ships, and the Marine Corps used its High-Mobility Rocket Artillery System (HIMARS) to attack landed enemy units. The HIMARS was air-freighted in from Okinawa.


This is the first time for the GSDF to train for the purpose of cooperating with the Marine Corps’ EABO. EABO is a strategy in which small units equipped with missiles and sensors are distributed to areas such as island chains. EABO is a concept advocated by Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger, who took office in July 2019. EABO aims to create conditions that can be supported by U.S. aircraft carriers and bombers through units that remain within range of the Chinese army, which has the advantage in term of number of ships, fighters, and intermediate-range missiles.


The GSDF is preparing a posture in which mobile divisions and brigades from outside Okinawa are deployed while the missile units and rapid deployment regiment stationed on remote islands resist Chinese attacks. During the Cold War, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) was prepared to withstand the attacks of the Soviet Union forces that would invade Hokkaido while waiting for U.S. military support. Now the SDF and the Marine Corps will play similar roles.


Around the time that General Berger took office, a high-ranking GSDF officer received a surprising request from a high-ranking Marine Corps officer: “Can you host the Marines in Miyako or Ishigaki Island?”


The GSDF is planning to deploy surface-to-ship missile units on Miyako and Ishigaki islands in Okinawa. The Marine Corps officer’s request seems to have in mind the deployment of the EABO units and ascertaining the operational environment.


The GSDF officer responded that it was “10 years too early.” The Ministry of Defense (MOD) had spent a long time persuading the local community regarding the deployment of the SDF to Miyako and Ishigaki. Some anti-base activists have “switched their battleground” from Henoko, Nago City, where the U.S. Futenma Air Station is to be relocated, and are now protesting the SDF garrison on Miyako. The stationing of the Marines [on Miyako or Ishigaki] could fuel anti-base activities.


A report compiled in March 2021 by an expert group set up by Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny, who opposes the relocation of Henoko, notes that EABO does not rely on large-scale bases. The report points out the possibility that units are not limited to conducting air force training at Futenma Air Base but can decentralize and relocate them outside Okinawa.


The GSDF officer who has been exchanging ideas with high-ranking Marine Corps officers questions Tamaki’s claim: “From which location would we deploy front-line troops if there were no base?” A former GSDF officer, who has a long-standing relationship with the Marine Corps, explains that Gen. Berger denied [the use of] a large-scale fixed base as a location from which EABO units are deployed in a distributed fashion.


“Japan and the U.S. must work together as one team to address the harsh security environment,” stressed Gen. Berger to then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in November 2020. Resolute Dragon is a historic step toward the GSDF and Marine Corps becoming “one team” in the true sense of the word, but there are still hurdles to overcome.

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