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6-month Japan tours are back

Thousands could go. What you need to know.

By Dan Lamothe
Staff writer
Sep. 28, 2009

The Corps is planning to send more Marines to Japan, with an artillery battery arriving before the end of the month and entire battalions eventually expected to deploy for regular six-month tours.


The assignments are part of the Unit Deployment Program, a 32-year-old arrangement that rotates units from the U.S. to Japan for training. The program has operated in a reduced capacity since March 2005, when the Corps began diverting many units that would have gone to Japan to the war zones instead, said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, a spokesman in Japan with III Marine Expeditionary Force.

With a drawdown of forces in Iraq well underway, about 130 Marines with Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines, based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, are scheduled to arrive in Japan by Oct. 1. That could be just the beginning, though: The Corps is preparing to bring back other parts of UDP, including deployments for infantry battalions.

“We just haven’t seen those kinds of numbers in a while, and it affects everything from the amount of food in the chow hall to maintenance and storage space,” Powell said. The Corps is “anticipating the number of infantry battalions will increase in the future here,” he said.

So far, Marine officials will say only that they plan to send Echo Battery and a yet-to-be-named battery to replace it in 2010, leaving unclear how many UDP assignments the Corps will ultimately bring back. It also isn’t clear whether the expansion of the program will affect the Corps’ goal to give each Marine two months of dwell time for every month deployed, but Marine officials said UDP will be increased as commitments in war zones allow.

If UDP reverts to the structure in place before the Iraq war, it could mean at least 3,000 more Marines routinely deploying to Japan to conduct training missions, develop unit cohesion and work with other Pacific Rim countries, such as Thailand and the Philippines.

Before 2005, the Corps regularly sent four infantry battalions, an amphibious assault company, a light armored reconnaissance company and two artillery batteries to Japan through UDP. During the past few years, however, only one rotational battalion — currently 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, of Camp Pendleton, Calif. — has remained in Japan to augment the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, and the AAV and LAR companies once assigned to Okinawa’s Combat Assault Battalion have been absent.

The Corps also diverted numerous artillery units bound for Japan beginning in 2005, with the last battery to fill a UDP assignment — Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, of Twentynine Palms, Calif. — deploying from August 2006 to February 2007, Marine officials said.

Aviation units have continued to fill UDP assignments, but those deployments have been cut back too. EA-6B Prowlers and CH-53D Sea Knight helicopters, once regular visitors, have not deployed regularly since 2005, Powell said. The Corps continues to send two squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets, with Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 553, of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., and VMFA-225, of MCAS Miramar, Calif., currently deployed.

A return to the past
The decision to divert battalions from Okinawa occurred when it became clear U.S. forces faced a prolonged fight in Iraq. At the time, active-duty end strength was about 22,000 Marines less than it is today, which is about 202,000. The Corps simply could not spare four infantry battalions for UDP duty, said retired Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations when the decision was made.

“If you have eight forward-deployed infantry battalions at any one time, then you need to have 16 back here in the barn in the United States or Hawaii to maintain the dwell time back home,” Huly said, referring to the time Marines spend at home between deployments. With six infantry battalions in Iraq and additional battalions in Okinawa, the Corps could not have managed even a 1-to-1 dwell time ratio in 2005, Huly said.

The decision to divert units was always temporary, however.

“From the political side of things, there was a concern (from Japanese leadership) with whether these battalions were coming back, and the answer was always ‘Yes,’” said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman Jr., III MEF’s commander from July 2003 to July 2005. “We had to make some hard decisions in order to do the right thing in the Global War on Terror, and clearly the main effort at the time, at least from a troop concentration perspective, was in Iraq.”

Blackman spent months meeting with diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Okinawa’s governor and others, discussing how a drawdown of sorts in Japan would affect the local economy and military relationships in the Western Pacific. Ultimately, the Corps decided to continue rotating in a battalion to deploy with the 31st MEU and preserve that valuable capability, he said.

“Without that battalion, there is no MEU, and the versatility and value of having a MEU in the Western Pacific is just extraordinary,” he said. “We needed that battalion to continue to exercise (with foreign militaries) and have that capability that could respond across the spectrum of possibilities.”

Overall, the number of Marines assigned to III MEF has been reduced significantly since UDP assignments were slashed, from more than 27,500 in fiscal 2004 to fewer than 21,000 last year, Marine officials said.

What to expect
Marines on UDP can expect busy days and travel to the U.S.’s major allies in the Western Pacific: Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and South Korea. Not all UDP Marines will visit each country, but their units will be incorporated into III MEF’s training schedule, which includes massive joint exercises such as Cobra Gold in Thailand, Balikatan in the Philippines and Talisman Saber in Australia, Marine officials said.

Capt. Todd Litvin, commander of Echo Battery 2/12, said the schedule for his first month of deployment is packed with training exercises on ranges in mainland Japan far from Okinawa. Artillery training is not allowed there, so Echo Battery will travel several hundred miles to Camp Fuji, a Marine base adjacent to a sprawling joint training area shared with the Japanese.

“We’ll operate for 24 hours at a time for a few days,” Litvin said. “You can’t really put a time limit on it. We have to take advantage of all the training opportunities that are presented to us.”

To cover the vast distances between Pacific Rim allies and training sites in Japan, transportation to exercises can range from commercial flights to rides on the WestPac Express, a water jet ferry operated for III MEF by Military Sealift Command. It can carry more than 900 Marines in airline-style seats on its upper deck, with 305 tons of equipment stored below.

UDP Marines will be encouraged to experience Japanese culture when not in their barracks, but they are required to sit through mandatory briefings that highlight the importance of respect and acting professionally, Litvin said.

“What we try to tell [junior Marines] is to get out and enjoy the experience … but that we need to appreciate differences in the Japanese way of life,” he said. “That’s something that has been missing with the Unit Deployment Program being stopped: There’s a good portion of junior Marines who haven’t been to Okinawa and experienced a deployment to Japan.”

‘Under the microscope’
These additional deployments come at a turning point in Japanese history — one that raises questions about how UDP will be perceived by a new ruling political party that has talked tough about getting more out of Japan’s relationship with the U.S.

On Aug. 30, the Democratic Party of Japan won an election in a landslide, ousting the Liberal Party of Japan that had held power since 1955 and maintained strong, friendly ties with the U.S. military. The new ruling party’s leader, Yukio Hatoyama, has said he wants his country to be on even footing with the U.S., and party officials say it is time to scrap unpopular plans to relocate MCAS Futenma from one part of Okinawa to another and instead move it off the island.

Marine officials, acknowledging the change of guard in Japan, don’t believe an increase in UDP assignments will be a problem.

“Sure, our numbers have been down by several thousand over the last few years, but this [increase in troops] should be transparent to Japan,” said Powell, the III MEF spokesman. “We’re not doing anything new here. There is nothing new that needs to be done.”

Experts say it may not be that simple, but are split on how significantly an increase in UDP missions may affect U.S.-Japan relations.

Bruce Klingner, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said UDP will likely face scrutiny from the new Japanese government, even if the Corps made it clear it always intended to return troop numbers to previous levels.

“The [new party] could resist an augmentation of Marine forces, even those on short-term deployments or, conversely, could see the UDP as a means to offset a permanent drawdown in U.S. Marine forces in Okinawa,” he said.

Marines arriving on UDP also must adjust to an environment with restrictions that do not exist in the U.S. In February 2008, Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, commander of III MEF, ordered all Status of Forces personnel on Okinawa to stay on bases or in their off-base homes after four Marines were arrested in separate incidents, including a staff sergeant charged with the rape of an Okinawan school girl. The restrictions since have been eased, but troops in Japan are still required to stop consuming alcohol by 2 a.m. at off-base bars and clubs, and adhere to liberty restrictions that require junior Marines with a red liberty card to stay on base between midnight and 5 a.m.

Litvin, Echo Battery’s commander, said his Marines are aware they will be “under the microscope a bit” as they deploy.

“We’ve explained the fact that the Unit Deployment Program has been shut down for the last few years, at least,” he said. “These guys are excited to be the ones to start it back up. We realize that we’re going to have to conduct ourselves accordingly.”