Focused on the Middle East for nearly two decades, the military’s Pacific rebalance could be considered a return to old stomping grounds for the Marine Corps.
“As our nation is shifting its strategic focus to the Pacific, in many ways the Marine Corps is returning … to our historic backyard,” retired General John F. Amos, 35th commandant of the Marine Corps, said. “We have a long history in the Pacific, replete with many hard-won victories, so this area of the world is in our institutional DNA.”
As the Corps transitions from the Middle East and works on rebalancing to the Pacific, it’s able to refocus on building relationships in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Colonel Brad S. Bartelt said.
“The Marine Corps’ rebalance efforts in the Pacific are focused both on creating and strengthening partnerships with other nations’ militaries,” said Bartelt, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific’s assistant chief of staff for communication.
It’s no coincidence that two-thirds of Marine Corps’ operational forces are assigned to the Pacific. Bartelt said this presence is a true necessity. On a daily basis, the Marines in the Pacific are ready to respond to natural or man-made disasters or a major incident by providing a versatile, experienced, ready-to-respond force. This helps ensure peace, stability and prosperity.
He added the need for forward-deployed Marines has never been greater as challenges grow in a fast-changing world. These challenges take on many forms, including one that’s been the subject of many a movie – piracy. Modern-day pirates aren’t any more benevolent than their predecessors, and much of the world’s commerce travels the sea lanes in this region. Curtailing piracy here is a not only a large part of the Marine Corps’ responsibility, it’s also a must to protect trade.
Bartelt also mentioned natural resources—some of the most sought-after, fought-over prizes.
“The thirst for natural resources, along with historic territorial differences, has brought about a rise in disputes [threatening] stability in the region,” he said. “Miscalculations in these disputes can quickly lead to escalations of tension and violence.”
With a majority of the Corps’ operational forces assigned to the Pacific, the Marines are well-placed to help diffuse any tensions that might arise or work with regional partners to keep things from beginning to heat up.
“This allocation of resources is intuitive given the vast [expanse] of the theater,” Bartelt said. “Marine Expeditionary Units, which are forward-deployed, flexible sea-based Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, have been, and will continue to be, a force-in-readiness capable of conducting amphibious operations, crisis response and limited contingency operations.”
The Corps wants to develop and maintain balanced capabilities strategically located between Hawaii, Japan and Australia, to allow for ease of training and response when, and if, needed. To this end there are several initiatives in play, Bartelt said.
Rotations to Australia began in 2012 when Marine Rotational Force-Darwin sent 250 Marines to train with Australian counterparts in Darwin during the dry season. In three years, that number has climbed to 1,500 Marines per rotation.
Announced several years ago, the Corps will be moving 9,000 Marines out of Okinawa, Japan, through an effort referred to as Distributed Laydown. Though the original plan had a large majority of the Marines heading to Guam, things have changed. Currently, the Corps expects about 4,700 Marines to head to the U.S. territory, while another 2,700 will move to Hawaii. The consolidation of facilities in Okinawa will continue, Bartelt said, adding the remainder of the 9,000 Marines will move north of Kadena Air Base.
In addition to the Okinawa move, Japan is at the center of another effort in progress. The U.S.-Japan Realignment Roadmap will “help achieve a force posture that is geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable to better position our forces across the theater,” enabling cooperative security partnerships in the region, Bartelt said.
“The governments of Japan and the United States will consider cooperatively developing training areas in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to be used as shared-use facilities by U.S. and the Japan Self-Defense Forces,” he said.
While all of these efforts are maturing, the Marines will continue to do the tried and true—participate in joint exercises with partner nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The results of these exercises are stronger ties to partners, increased partner capabilities and more parties able to respond to regional needs.
Annual, multinational exercises like Cobra Gold, Balikatan and RIMPAC, the world’s largest international maritime exercise, create goodwill and trust and provide opportunities to share ideas, skills and technologies.
“Our engagements throughout the Asia-Pacific region result in better training and interoperability with our friends and partners,” Bartelt said.
In February, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit made strides in this arena with a military partner it doesn’t often interact with. Members of the Malaysian military and government observed an amphibious air-ground demonstration. The event, which included a live-fire platoon vertical assault that highlighted the 31st MEU’s ground combat element, fire-and-maneuver tactics and demonstration of the MV-22B Ospreys by Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), paved the way for future exercises in the country.
It was noted in an April Marine Corps Times story that Malaysia would like to develop a “Marine-like” capability, but has made only moderate progress.
As the United States military continues its rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, there’s little doubt the Marine Corps will have a hand in its success. Though, there’s also little doubt there will be call for the Corps’ capabilities long before the rebalance is complete, whether it’s a natural disaster or a crisis.
“The Marine Corps is a force perfectly designed and suited for both crisis response and the Asia-Pacific maritime environment,” Bartelt said. “We will remain focused both on creating and strengthening partnerships with other militaries.
“[We are] the training partner of choice for the region, especially when partnered with the Navy. We have built the rapport and trust that successful relationships require. …”
Bartelt added this is an exciting time for Marines in the region. The Corps is looking to expand training opportunities to places Marines may not have typically deployed to before and they’ll be training alongside old and new partners and learning more about the nations that choose to train with them.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.