[Viewpoint] Let’s hear it for the Marines

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[Viewpoint] Let’s hear it for the Marines

The United States Marine Corps has a storied history in Korea, from the first clashes between Americans and Koreans during the Shinmiyangyo (Korea Expedition) in 1871 to the amphibious landings at Incheon and the bloody withdrawal down the Chosun Reservoir during the Korean War.

For the most part, however, this has been an Army-dominated relationship. The Army owns the four-star billet commanding USFK, CINC and the UNC. The Marines have a three-star general in Okinawa, Japan, and now as deputy commander of the Pacific Command in Hawaii.

In Korea, the highest ranking Marine has had only two stars and serves under an Army general. That all worked for half a century, but now the Marine Corps is poised to play a much more important role in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

This year, U.S. and South Korean Marines will conduct the largest amphibious exercise on the Korean peninsula in over two decades; South Korean Marines will join the annual U.S.-Thailand Cobra Gold exercises; and the two Marine Corps are planning to expand company-level joint exercises, surveillance and planning for maintaining security in the Yellow Sea. More will likely follow.

In some Washington policy circles, it has become fashionable to dismiss the Marine Corps’ role in the security of the western Pacific and to argue that the Obama administration is wasting its time trying to negotiate a new facility in Okinawa to replace the crowded and controversial Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Most recently, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost urged the administration to abandon the Futenma replacement plans and downsize Marines on Okinawa. (There are currently about 18,000 Marines stationed on the island.) Other critics argue that the relatively lightly armed Marines could not possibly play a role in stopping the million-man armies of the PLA or KPA.

These criticisms of the Marine Corps are fundamentally flawed. As former Pacific Command commander Adm. Timothy Keating has noted, the Marines have a role in every contingency plan in the Asia-Pacific region. The Marines have the unique capability to deploy to hot spots on short notice against hostile opposition and to defend themselves with ground, air and sea components for 60 days or more.

The U.S. cannot maintain stability in Asia by relying solely on the high-end combat power of the Air Force and the Army. That may provide some deterrent against major wars but does not provide the capability to deal with crises ranging from terrorism to failing states that threaten to tilt the Asia-Pacific region toward the kind of entropy that can draw major powers into conflict.

Without the Marines in the western Pacific, the United States would be left with a much less agile force and fewer capabilities to manage crises before they reach the danger point.

In fact, despite some carping about the Marines presence in Okinawa among Washington insiders, the trend in strategic planning in the Pentagon is toward relying more on Marines in the Pacific. That is not likely to change.

Both the Army and the Marines will have their numbers cut in the current defense strategy, but unlike big Army, the Marine Corps is quite pleased to return to a “fighting weight” suited to the contingencies it faces in the arch of instability from Southwest Asia around the rim to Northeast Asia (essentially the same size force they had before the Sept.11 attacks).

Marine bases in Okinawa were largely empty during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the units are returning to their rotations through the Pacific and are eager to replenish their amphibious skills after years of stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. The Army, in contrast, will lose two full brigades in Europe, which will put even greater pressures on those units outside of Europe.

In addition to these larger trends, the Marines are also likely to play a more significant role in the U.S.-South Korea alliance for three other reasons.

First, after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, both Seoul and Washington are keen to strengthen deterrence in the Yellow Sea. This is a region that requires precisely the kind of agile amphibious capabilities that the U.S. Marine Corps owns and the South Korean Marines want to expand.

Second, as the U.S.-South Korea alliance becomes a more global alliance, U.S. Marines are more likely to be operating with their South Korean counterparts off the peninsula than are the Army units of the 2nd Infantry Division, which are tied more directly to deterring the North.

Finally, as the Marines disperse their presence in the western Pacific by relying less on Okinawa and turning more to new facilities in northern Australia and Guam, there are opportunities for more frequent rotations and interactions with the South Korean Marines on and off the peninsula.

The increased Marine Corps weight in the alliance is not without complications. The Marines are expeditionary, and the Korean public is more accustomed to the fixed presence of the 2nd Infantry Division. In addition, U.S. amphibious exercises can look inherently offensive to Pyongyang.

But overall, the U.S. Marine Corps is poised with its South Korean brethren to help take the alliance in a more comprehensive and agile direction - precisely what is needed in the current fluid security environment in East Asia.

The author is a senior advisor and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green

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