The US Marine Corps in the Pivot to the Pacific

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Recently, Secretary Hagel underscored the centrality of the US-Japanese security treaty and the need to reinforce Japanese defense against the twin challenges from North Korea and China.  In so doing, he became the first Secretary of Defense to move the USMC’s Osprey onto the strategic chessboard.

As Hagel underscored at his press conference with the Japanese Minister of Defense:

Earlier this month, the United States and Japan jointly announced a base consolidation plan on Okinawa. Its implementation, in concert with moving ahead on the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) will ensure that we maintain the right mix of capabilities on Okinawa, Guam and elsewhere in the region, as we reduce our footprint on Okinawa and strengthen this alliance for the future. 

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In addition, we confirmed the deployment of a second squadron of MV-22 Ospreys to Japan, which will take place this summer and increase our capabilities in the region.

Hagel is re-enforcing the importance of the Ospreys at a key time in the roll out of the capability by the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) in the Pacific. The Ospreys are being deployed first to the USMC First Air Wing on Okinawa and then with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, the only permanently forward deployed Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) in the Corps.

The USMC is really at the center of the pivot to the Pacific. The USMC is not only redeploying in the region but enhancing its role as a rotational force as well. As Col. John Merna, the Commanding Officer of the 31st MEU put it in a recent interview with Second Line of Defense (SLD):

In one sense, the Marines are going back to the force levels we had in the region prior to 9/11.  So it is simply a restoration rather than a build up or buildout.

But the way the force is being configured is very different. We are emphasizing building out a rotational force, notably in Australia, but elsewhere as well.

The USMC is itself “pivoting” in the Pivot to the Pacific.  USMC forces in Okinawa are moving partly to Guam and the Marines are shaping a new working relationship with the Australians in Western Australia.  In fact, they are the lead force in re-shaping the U.S. presence in the Pacific over the next few years.

The Marine Corps in the Pacific faces a myriad of challenges.  They have been directed through International Agreements, spanning two different U.S. administrations, to execute force-positioning moves.  This is political, but it’s not partisan.

The U.S. Secretary of Defense has mandated that at least 22,000 Marines in PACOM remain west of the international dateline in the distributed Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Laydown and he, Congress, and the American people are not interested in a non-functional concept for a USMC force.

Beyond what is directed, the Marines need to maintain a ready-force in the face of existing training area encroachments, plus they require training areas near the new force laydown locations.

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