A domestic political crisis in Japan in May and June nearly shattered the U.S. military’s delicate basing infrastructure in the Pacific — and underscored the enduring need for a robust U.S. Nay aircraft carrier and assault-ship force. The controversy in Japan over the U.S. Marine Corps air station in the town of Futenma came at time when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was publicly questioning the Navy’s plans to maintain 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and 10 large-deck assault ships through at least 2040.
Leaving aside forces in South Korea that are exclusively focused on the North Korean land threat, there are just two significant concentrations of U.S. troops and aircraft in East Asia: in Okinawa and on the Pacific island of Guam. Okinawa lies just an hour’s flight time from both the Korean peninsula and Taiwan; Guam, by contrast, is a thousand miles from any potential theater of war. “It may be easier for us to be there [in Guam], as far as the diplomatic issue is concerned,” U.S. Air Force spokesman John Monroe said, “but if we’re in Guam, we’re out of the fight” due to the distance. For land-based combat forces capable of reacting quickly to the most likely crises, Okinawa is the only realistic option.
American bases — and Futenma, especially — have been unpopular among the now-largely pacifist Japanese public, particularly Okinawans. In 1995, three American servicemen from Futenma abducted and raped a local schoolgirl, further stoking opposition to the base. Aircraft crashes are another safety concern. Between the Air Force’s Kadena base and Futenma, several hundred U.S. military aircraft are permanently based in Okinawa at facilities surrounded by dense residential neighborhoods.
In his election campaign last year, Hatoyama had vowed to reconsider a 2006 deal allowing 4,000 U.S. Marines to remain at Futenma. After strongly hinting that he would abandon the 2006 deal and evict the Marines, in late May Hatoyama announced continued support for the existing agreement. Under the terms agreed to four years ago, the Marines will eventually relocate their airstrip to a less-populated part of the island prefecture. But many Okinawans oppose any U.S. military presence on the island. In all, some 20,000 American service members plus family members live on Okinawa.
On June 1, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stepped down — making him the country’s fourth leader in four years. For weeks, opinion polls had showed declining support for Hatoyama among everyday Japanese; in the days preceding his resignation, Hatoyama’s ruling coalition had frayed as fringe allies peeled off from the main Democratic Party of Japan coalition. All this, over the American bases.
The decision to stick with the 2006 deal represented a belated recognition on Hatoyama’s part that “there was no other good option” for the strategically-vital Marine presence and for the U.S.-Japanese alliance in general, said Michael Auslin, an Asia expert with the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington, D.C. In that context, the prime minister’s vague election promise to Okinawan base-detractors was a “miscalculation,” Auslin said.
Upon taking power in June, Hatoyama’s successor Naoto Kan apologized to the people of Okinawa for what he called the “burden” of American bases. But Kan stressed that the bases were integral to the “peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region.” Still, Okinawan resistance to U.S. facilities likely will not diminish. It will be harder as time goes on for the U.S. to hold onto its most important Pacific facilities.
Without its two Okinawan air bases and their three long runways, the U.S. military — and by extension, American allies — would depend almost entirely on aircraft carriers and assault ships for bringing to bear aerial firepower and ground forces in East Asia. “We may face a time in the near future that fighting our way in, establishing a lodgment and then building out from there with seaborne heavy forces is our only option for introducing significant force into a region,” wrote Bryan McGrath, an official with consulting firm Delex Systems and a contributor to the popular Navy-themed blog Information Dissemination.
Despite this, cuts could be coming for heavy naval forces, if Gates gets his way. “I do not foresee any significant top-line increases in the shipbuilding budget beyond current assumptions,” Gates said at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference in May. “At the end of the day, we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3-[billion] to $6-billion destroyers, $7-billion submarines and $11-billion carriers.”
“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates continued. “Any future plans must address these realities.” But those plans should also take into account the possibility of U.S. forces losing their Pacific land bases to local political opposition.
The plans should also consider the risk carriers and assault ships would face in operating in Pacific waters without significant land-based support. China has lately deployed several new classes of anti-ship weaponry specifically meant for sinking American carriers, including the widely-feared DF-21 ballistic missile and a flotilla of stealthy fast-attack vessels. In light of these threats, 11 carriers and 10 assault ships might actually be too few.
As China’s economic and military rise continues seemingly unabated and tensions increase over North Korea’s nuclear program and its alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, America and its Asian allies need forward-deployed U.S. military power more than ever — whether in the form of regional land bases, large naval vessels or, ideally, a mix of both. Wisely, Japan’s leadership has at least temporarily preserved the land bases … and the U.S. Navy has refused to budge on its existing force structure.