Features | Security | East Asia

The US Marine Corps in the Pivot to the Pacific

The centerpiece of the U.S. Pivot to the Pacific, the Marines are moving forward.

By Robbin F. Laird for

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. 

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

Within the distributed laydown, the Marines must retain the ability to rapidly respond to crises across the range of contingencies, from major combat operations in Northeast Asia to low-end humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) wherever it occurs. 

Each location for the Marines is in transition as well.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

From Okinawa and Iwakuni, the Marines can locally train in Japan, Korea and the Philippines, as well as respond with “Fight Tonight” capabilities if necessary.

From Guam, the Marines can train locally in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) to the north, the Federated States of Micronesia to the south, and Palau and the Philippines to the west. 

Guam and CNMI provide the Marines something they do not have anywhere else in the Pacific:  A location on U.S. soil where they can train unilaterally or with partner nations.

In late 2011, President Obama visited Australia and launched with the Australians a new training relationship between the Aussie forces and the USMC. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Obama highlighted the coming of the USMC to a training facility in the Northern territories. The visit provided a strategic opening for Darwin and the Northern Territories in the 21st century approach of Australia and its allies to develop realistic training opportunities and thus establish war-deterring con-ops.

Darwin’s strategic location could make it a hub of Pacific operations for Australia and for its core allies to visit.

For the Marines, Darwin Australia allows them the opportunity to gain access to the large nearby training areas for portions of the year where they can conduct high-end, combined arms, live fire-and–maneuver training with a high-end ally.  By prepositioning appropriate equipment in Australia, the Marines could avoid the costly repetitive expense of moving equipment into and out of Australia while complying with Australia’s biosecurity measures

And if another training facility located outside of Australia could be co-located with mobility assets, the Marines could move people more easily to train with Southeast Asian partners. In fact, such an exercise is planned between the U.S. Marine Corps and the Australians this summer.

In the interview with Col. Merna, he described the forthcoming exercise, which will involve Ospreys as well. 

They will be part of our training with the Australians when we participate in Talisman Saber this summer.  We will be training with them as well at Bradshaw Field, which is a training area, and part of the rotational involvement of the Marines with the Australians.  The training will contribute to the Australian effort to get ready to use their own forthcoming amphibious capability as well.

(Note: The Australians are building two of their own 27,000 amphibious ships and are working towards their coming deployments.)

In other words, several moves are in play for the USMC in the Pacific. The Marines are moving forces from Okinawa to Guam, building rotational forces to operate with the Australians in Australia, consolidating remaining forces in Okinawa, and moving some Marine forces forward from Hawaii into the Western Pacific.

 The overall objective of the USMC-USN team in the Pacific is “persistent presence.”  As Lt. General Terry Robling, the highest ranking Marine in the Pacific (MARFORPAC) put it in an interview with Second Line of Defense:

The United States has been a significant presence in the region throughout the post-war period.  And that presence has been significant glue in the region facilitating both security and economic growth.  Our allies and partners certainly recognize this and are a looking at new ways to work with us to get that persistent presence.

A key driver of demand is from partner nations, as well as the more obvious allies.  South Korea, Japan, Australia and Thailand are certainly core allies, but we have growing demand from and opportunities with Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Malaysia and Indonesia for expanded working relationships.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The “tyranny of geography” is a core challenge for any effort to have such “persistent presence.  Lt. General Robling underscored that:

Distance means that I need to have assets forward deployed and operational. This means for the USMC, an ability to train with partners and allies in the strategic quadrangle of Hawaii, Japan and Guam.

This means an ability to have enough capable amphibious ships forward deployed to operate with those partners and allies. Sea-basing is a key element of providing persistent presence. And amphibious ships are [a] real part of a whole sea-basing capability and engagement capability….

Many of our partners in the region do not want us to be the Uncle that visited and never returned home.  They want us engaged and present but not permanently based in their countries. 

In short, the Marines are a centerpiece element in the U.S. approach to a Pivot to the Pacific.  The USMC itself is moving within the Pacific and enhancing its rotational requirements as well.  The goal is “persistent presence” but this is challenged by the limitations on resources as well.

A key path for the USMC is the transformation of its forces as it engages in the Pacific Pivot. As Col. Merna put it:

Because we are building out a rotational force, the new capabilities we are adding are crucial to success.   Rotational forces require greater capability for reach and speed, key aspects of the Osprey-F-35B combination coming to the Pacific.

Dr. Robbin F. Laird is a military and security analyst, the co-founder of Second Line of Defense, and a Member of the Editorial Board of Contributors, AOL Defense.