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American Basing in Asia: Taking the Cow by the Horns

Last month, the new Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General David Berger released his initial planning guidance. In it, Berger takes on the tough issues and makes trade-offs, offering up for slaughter one institutional sacred cow after another and makes a case for a renewed focus on increasing Marine Corps integration with the U.S. Navy. However, one grizzled steer somehow escaped the knife: the antiquated forward basing construct in the Western Pacific. While not purely a Marine Corps issue, the legacy American basing construct for Okinawa, Japan, and other locations in and around the so-called first and second island chains, no longer makes sense for reasons including security, public relations, and perhaps most importantly, naval integration.

The Sacred Cow

Strategic American bases in Okinawa, and to a growing extent on the American territory of Guam, are increasingly within the targeting envelope of the long-range precision strike weaponry of potential regional adversaries. Though this is a strategic military problem, tens of thousands of American military dependents stationed there will become a massive operational liability during conflict and greatly complicate the diplomatic calculus when rockets start flying. In that event, the Marines in Okinawa will get on ships and planes and go to fight, but commanders will face a difficult choice about how much of those transportation assets to devote to evacuating thousands of noncombatant American citizens that remain. In the moment of crisis, no commander wants to choose between supporting force generation for combat operations and saving noncombatants from long-range weapons raining down on military infrastructure. Drawing down the bases and sending dependents home prevents future commanders from having to make that horrible choice.

A drawdown also partially addresses the uncomfortable fact that American troops in Okinawa have largely worn out their welcome. A quick scan of Google search results for “Okinawa” reveals at least one report of “Americans acting badly” from within the last week’s news. The friction points with the local constabulary typically involve alcohol use among the 18 to 25-year-old male demographic – the primary population of American servicemembers assigned to the island – and can run the gamut from garden-variety bar fights to driving under the influence to sexual assault and murder. You’ll also notice stories describing the controversy surrounding the basing realignment program in the region. The twenty-year-old plan to move the Marine Corps’ Futenma airfield from the densely urban area of Ginowan City to a more remote location in the northern portion of the island requires the construction of tarmac out into the ocean in two directions. Environmental activists, concerned about the destruction of marine life, are now allied with the entrenched anti-base portion of the Okinawan population. They protest the construction site routinely, blocking progress and prolonging the dispute ongoing since 1996 with no end in sight.

The time is now to move beyond the failed constructs of the past to something that accounts for the shortcomings in security, public relations, and naval integration inherent in the existing disposition of U.S. forces in Asia.

Together, these dynamics present a no-win information environment for the Marine Corps in Okinawa. Moving Futenma doesn’t suddenly fix the Marines’ public relations issues, and every day the bases stay there, the problem gets worse. The Okinawan people, as kind and tolerant as they are, have already lived with literally decades of abuses at the hands (and fists) of America’s uniformed “ambassadors.” If the shoe were on the other foot, Americans would never tolerate the same sort of neo-colonialism in their back yards. Moreover, the offense has the advantage in war and will maintain it for the foreseeable future. There will not be a technological solution, no deployment of a super-THAAD air defense capability to Okinawa just in the nick of time to vouchsafe the well-being of non-combatants there. The proliferation of missile technology in the region means aggressors will find it easier and cheaper to field ever-increasing numbers of more accurate weaponry. Keeping the Marines in Okinawa hurts the American image, evacuating U.S. civilians while Okinawans fend for themselves makes that image even worse.

Marine Corps equities are not the only ones involved with this basing problem. Okinawa hosts facilities run by all the services – it is a “joint” island. However, the Marine Corps maintains the lion’s share of them and must be the first mover. Recognizing this, General Berger’s planning guidance did not allow basing to escape unscathed, but his criticism did not go nearly far enough. Regarding bases, he states: “Our installation infrastructure is untenable. We are encumbered by 19,000 buildings, some of which are beyond the scope of repair and should instead be considered for demolition.” Though referring to a global problem, General Berger should start by looking at buildings on bases in Okinawa. Instead of constructing new schools for dependents and headquarters facilities, the Marine Corps should go in the other direction with the aim of returning bases in Okinawa to their Japanese hosts at the soonest time practicable.

Basing: A Grizzled Steer

It is time to rip off the band-aid and get the Marines out of the metaphorical fighting hole in Okinawa from which they cannot possibly win today’s fights, let alone those of the future. Doing so creatively can nest directly underneath the naval integration priority contained in the Commandant’s planning guidance. Co-locating the Marine three-star headquarters for Japan –currently in Okinawa – with its Navy counterpart in Yokosuka will go a long way towards greater naval integration at the numbered fleet-Marine expeditionary force level whether in garrison or deployed. This works at the tactical level as well. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, one of the Marine Corps’seven standing rapid response task forces, is also currently located in Okinawa while the amphibious ships it deploys on are based far to the north in Sasebo. By aggregating both tactical commands in Sasebo, co-located staffs can develop habitual working relationships even before they get underway as an amphibious ready group. Doing so not only reassures allies and deters potential adversaries, it demonstrates a firm commitment to the integration of Marine Corps warfighting capability with the U.S. Navy in the first island chain. increases readiness at a lower cost and better postures both integrated naval organizations for rapid deployment and employment throughout the region.

The time is now to move beyond the failed constructs of the past to something that accounts for the shortcomings in security, public relations, and naval integration inherent in the existing disposition of U.S. forces in Asia. Though post-war basing in Asia served American foreign policy broadly, keeping that grizzled steer alive sometimes came at the expense of operational readiness. As changes in technology and politics conspire against the 20th-century calculus of American bases however, strategic military risk is beginning to outweigh the diplomatic benefits of the U.S. force posture there. It remains to be seen if, Commandant Berger will take the opportunity of his upcoming trip to the region to take that sacred cow by the horns and lead her to the 21st-century slaughter.


Gary SampsonGary J. Sampson is a U.S. Marine Corps officer currently assigned to the Joint Staff. A 2009 Olmsted Foundation Scholar, he has spent 4.5 years in assignments on Okinawa. He is also a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and a 2019-20 Public Intellectuals Program Fellow with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

A Tale of Two Armies: Defending NATO

During the NATO Summit in Brussels earlier this year, the President of the United States, leader of one of the founding member states of the Alliance, stunned the world when he reportedly declared – in a meeting of the heads of state and government – that the USA would “go it alone” if the Allies failed to increase defense spending. With Alliance unity considered a lynchpin of security in Europe, the mere perception of cracks in its armor could make 70 years of peace vulnerable to collapse. In response, some European Union (EU) members are reviving an old idea and seeking to reverse Europe’s reliance for its security on the United States by creating another military apparatus: the European Army. To some, the concept is a fool’s errand. It runs counter to NATO and is at odds with the EU’s purpose. More importantly, it is harmful to the relationship between Europe and the United States.

Fundamentals

“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”

– Robert Schuman

In 1946, as Europe struggled to rebuild after the Second World War, a young State Department official named George Kennan wrote there could be “no permanent peaceful coexistence” with the Soviet Union. With those few words, Kennan summarized the political reality that would dominate American strategic thinking for the next 50 years. Thereafter, the looming Soviet threat forced western European nations toward greater military and economic integration and inspired support from the United States which otherwise would have retreated into its traditional isolationism. Announcing his plan for the recovery of Europe, George Marshall, then US Secretary of State, claimed the “remedy [to prevent further deterioration] lies in…restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole.” As Nicolaus Mills explains, “the genius of the Marshall Plan was that it enabled the countries of Western Europe to look upon one another not as rivals competing in a zero-sum game but as partners with a chance to gain from each other through liberalized trade and interchangeable currencies made reliable by American backing.” European security, at least in the American view, began with sound economic fundamentals.

Unfortunately, the USSR remained undeterred and continued to spread Communist influence throughout Eastern Europe. On April 4th, 1949, as a result of this seemingly uncontested expansion, twelve European nations and the United States ratified the Washington Treaty establishing NATO as a mechanism to deter and repel Soviet aggression. Accordingly, European countries began integrating their economies through a series of treaties that provided a formal construct for their collective economic interests. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC), among others, fostered a cooperative international environment whereby each nation could better control its destiny. Perhaps by design, they also formed the foundations of what would become the European Union.

Senior British and French officers during NATO exercise in West Germany (1950)
Senior British and French officers during NATO exercise in West Germany (1950) Source Credit: Imperial War Museum

Concerned about the overwhelming combat power of the Red Army in 1950, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) contended “the appropriate and early rearming of Western Germany is of fundamental importance to the defense of Western Europe against the USSR.” France vehemently opposed this idea and offered an alternative. Designed to stop German rearmament, the French Plan, designed by Defense Minister René Pleven, called for a highly integrated European Army. The UK worried Pleven’s “European Defense Community” (EDC) might weaken NATO, but did not refuse the treaty outright. The American government, an early advocate for rearming Germany, questioned the logic of Pleven’s proposal. The US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, claimed the EDC was “hastily conceived without serious military advice… unrealistic and undesirable.” In the eyes of western officials, the Pleven Plan, and ultimately the EDC, would result in “duplication, confusion and divided responsibility.” Though several European nations agreed to the terms contained within the Treaty Establishing the European Defense Community on May 27, 1952, the French Parliament refused to ratify it. The EDC collapsed and the allies quickly integrated the Federal Republic of Germany into NATO, allowing West Germany to rearm under a “collective self-defense” organization. France’s concern for German rearmament subsided, and with it, the push for an army outside NATO became a great taboo of the Cold War.

The European Army Reemerges

2018 NATO Summit
2018 NATO Summit Source Credit: Express.co.uk

Contemporary politics and a shaky transatlantic relationship are the rationales behind the European Army’s recent resurgence. US President Trump’s demand for NATO allies to pay their “fair share and meet their financial obligations” enflames Europe’s desire to extricate itself from the US-dominated security relationship. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, expressed this sentiment in a 2015 interview saying, “A joint EU army would show the world that there would never again be a war between EU countries… such an army would also help us to form common foreign and security policies and allow Europe to take on responsibility in the world… a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values.”

It is therefore unsurprising the EU began developing a joint military investment strategy exclusive of NATO and the United States in November 2017. Under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement, EU members agreed to leverage their combined economies of scale while not explicitly adhering to NATO’s defense spending goal of two-percent gross domestic product (GDP). Responding to US concerns that an increase in EU defense spending could distract from NATO activities, the European Council President, Donald Tusk, warned the United States to “appreciate [its] allies, after all [it doesn’t] have that many.” The rhetorical back-and-forth between western nations continues to drive the United States and its European allies farther apart and provides fodder for some to demand a robust, Europe-only, military apparatus. In late August, French President Emmanuel Macron verbalized this idea, telling European ambassadors “Europe [could] no longer entrust its security to the United States alone. It’s up to us to guarantee our security.”

A Tale Not Worth Retelling

Overt discussion of an extra-NATO military organization is no longer the great taboo it was during the Cold War, but the European Army generates more questions than it answers. The stated aim of the European Union was to end “the frequent and bloody wars between neighbors” by creating a common economic and financial market for European nations. It was never intended to compete with NATO as a provider of multi-lateral military power. The logic the UK used to protest the EDC in the 1950s is still applicable today; that a vote for the European Army dilutes NATO’s resources, degrades its unity of effort, and convolutes the EU’s purpose. With over 70 years of experience working through common funding, command-and-control, training, standardization, doctrine, and capability development, NATO remains the gold standard of collective defense. By contrast, Europe has not developed protocols for controlling the European Army, resolving conflicts between member states, or even disputes between those member states and the EU itself.

European leaders should recognize the dangers of moving forward with their own military unless their long-term goal is to mitigate US influence over European military spending. Perhaps goaded by spite for the current US Administration, Europe is on the brink of a major strategic error. In this tale of two armies, an untested and unfunded European Army is not only a poor substitute for NATO, but it is also a threat to the viability of the Alliance and the security of Europe.


Major Steve “SWAP” Nolan is a US Air Force Weapons Officer, C17 Instructor Pilot, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) graduate, and is currently serving as the Director of Operations for the 21st Airlift Squadron, California. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management and three Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Operations Management with a focus on Air Mobility Logistics, and Military Strategy. Steve recently published an article discussing how the US Air Force can improve its talent management practices and is currently working on another article based on his SAASS thesis: Triggers, Traps, and Mackinder’s Maps – The Russian Bear, NATO, and the Near Abroad.

Master of Puppets: Pulling the Strings in Turkey

On the night of July 15th 2016, Turkish Military Forces moved swiftly in the streets of both Ankara and Istanbul. What appeared to be a security operation slowly took the shape of a coup d’état as military units occupied key locations in the country’s two largest cities. Despite a history of successful coups by the Turkish military, this coup started to fail as soon as it began. Revolutionary units suffered from a lack of leadership and their seizure of critical infrastructure in and around the capital was haphazard at best. Most importantly, the coup failed to make any credible attempt to kill or capture President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the lynchpin between success and failure. Despite dramatic scenes from around the country, loyalist forces were firmly back in control before sunrise and were pointing the finger of blame at a shadowy organization known by its Turkish acronym, FETÖ, the Fethullah Gülen Organization.

Erdogan’s apparent success emboldened him the following day. His security services had performed brilliantly. They were one step ahead of the coup at every turn and were already rounding up FETÖ members within the state. Despite 300 dead and more than 2100 wounded, Erdogan and AKP appeared to be in a strengthening political position and were consolidating authoritarian power across all the institutions of the Turkish government. Still, the situation remained complicated. The remaining military leadership did not have an amiable relationship with the AKP, a party whose Islamic leanings conflict with the military’s secular legacy. Erdogan the authoritarian will have to reconcile that relationship with the AKP’s devout Islamic voting base; a base that once looked to Fethullah Gülen for direction.

Stroke & Counterstroke

In 2002, Erdogan’s AKP swept the Turkish general election with an overwhelming majority. The victory was a shocking turn of events in a nation that traditionally embraced a secular order underpinned by vast military power. The secret of AKP’s success at the time was social mobilization in support of a more politically Islamic Turkey. In this endeavor, Erdogan received direct support from FETÖ media outlets and schools that enjoyed great popularity amongst Islamic voters. Though for years Erdogan benefitted politically from the relationship with FETÖ, it pitted him against the secular nationalist leadership of the military. Inspired by the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “Kemalists” in the military were growing alarmed at the Islamization of Turkish politics led by the AKP and guided by Fethullah Gülen. Pressure mounted until 2012 when judges associated with Gülen convicted 322 military officers of plotting to overthrow the government. The failure of the plot, known locally as “Sledgehammer”, defanged the military and set its Kemalist leadership against Gülen for what the military believed was a political move against the legacy of Ataturk.

Turkey Power
The relationship between Erdogan and the military is increasingly complicated, but the coup allowed him to clean out the ranks of dissenters. Photo credit: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-05-30/turkeys-next-military-coup.

The relationship between the AKP and FETÖ dissolved shortly thereafter when Gülen criticized Erdogan over the handling of the 2013 Gezi Park protests; upheavals that supported freedom of the press while maligning the government for encroaching on Turkish secularism. Accusing Gülenists of running a parallel state, Erdogan expelled them from law enforcement and the judiciary. In turn, Gülen’s religiously-minded supporters viewed Erodgan’s actions as an attack on their organization and the Islamic path they sought for Turkey. Over time, as Gülen’s opposition to Erdogan’s growing power intensified, the Kemalists began to sense an opportunity to take their revenge.

Turkey Unveiled

After years of souring relations between AKP and the Gülenists, the National Security Council declared FETÖ a threat to national security in 2014; a partial victory for the Kemalists but one that did not regain them control of the military or the government. That would not happen until 2016 when Gülenists within the military sought the help of the remaining Kemalists to overthrow Erdogan and AKP. The move was not without merit. The Kemalists had already suffered at the hands of AKP and were increasingly uncomfortable with the ongoing erosion of secularism and consolidation of power by Erdogan but they calculated revenge was ultimately more beneficial than collaboration. Initially pledging their support for the coup, the Kemalists stepped aside at a critical moment, betrayed FETÖ, and declared themselves in full support of Erdogan’s government. The subsequent failure we all witnessed on television was therefore less of a success for Erdogan than it was a victory for the Kemalists. In one night, they regained control of the military and drove the wedge between AKP and its Islamic base a little deeper.

Recognizing the new reality, Erdogan changed his stripes from a one-time supporter of political Islam to an authoritarian nationalist; a position supported (for now) by the military but rejected by AKP’s traditional base. How long he can maintain this tenuous political charade will depend on his success in wielding the tools of authoritarianism; specifically, his relationship with the military and suppression of freedom of the press. The simultaneous and often conflicting vilification of FETÖ, the Kurds, and Daesh, continue to fuel police and military operations like Operation Olive Branch in Syria that serve to expand Erdogan’s power and keep his Kemalist allies busy.

Despite the outward appearance, Erdogan and AKP are without a political anchor and dangerously dependent upon the Kemalists they once betrayed. While western governments and media continue to operate on the assumption of Erdogan’s strength since the failed coup, it is likely the real master of puppets is wearing a military uniform, and he has yet to pull all his available strings.


Nuno FelixNuno Felix is a former non-commissioned officer with Portuguese Army Special Operations Forces. He is a sniper and special reconnaissance expert and is currently working as a consultant to top executives in the financial sector.