U.S. Builds Up Marines in Asia


As the U.S. rebalances its security strategy toward Asia, the U.S. Marine Corps is rebuilding its expertise for amphibious warfare, which was eroded during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The WSJ’s Yuka Hayashi reports.

POHANG, South Korea—The U.S. Marine Corps is rebuilding its forces in East Asia, beefing up amphibious fighting capabilities that had been eroded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The effort, which Marines showed off this week in exercises with South Korean forces, is meant to underscore the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, which has come into question as the U.S. downsizes its military overall.

Even amid Pentagon spending cuts, the Marine Corps is moving ahead with a plan to increase its troops in Asia to levels not seen since 2003, U.S. officials say.

The exercise in Pohang, on South Korea’s southeastern coast, was also meant to reassure allies in the region where some officials have voiced doubts about the U.S.’s commitment to protect them as Washington grapples with its own budgetary constraints and war-weary population.

Such concern has grown amid Beijing’s aggressive military buildup. China’s People’s Liberation Army has strengthened its own Marine Corps in recent years, defense experts say.

“Truth be told, the U.S. can no longer afford to play the world’s policeman,” said Yosuke Isozaki, a senior Japanese lawmaker who advises Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on national-security issues, at a symposium last week. “This is no longer an era when Japan can do nothing and count on America to protect us for free.”

The U.S. has also expanded joint-exercise programs with Japan as well as Australia, regional allies that are building their own amphibious forces to counter Beijing’s.

For the U.S. Marine Corps, which has been teasingly called “a second land army” after operating only on land in Iraq and Afghanistan, the shift represents a chance to return to its core.

U.S. and South Korean forces engaged in joint landing exercises this week. The Marine Corps plans to have 22,000 troops stationed in the Asian Pacific by 2017. Zuma Press

“We’ve kind of forgotten how to do large-scale amphibious operations,” Brig.-Gen. Paul Kennedy, commanding general of the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said in an interview. “Now we are back.”

Symbolizing the new emphasis was a beachhead landing exercise in Pohang on Monday. With more than 13,000 troops participating, it was the largest amphibious-warfare drill between the two countries in more than two decades and more than double the scale of last year’s. Nearly 10,000 of the troops were Americans, including 7,500 Marines from bases in Okinawa and California—distinguishable by their desert-sand uniforms. The rest were South Korean troops and some Australians.

The exercise, known as Ssang Yong, or Twin Dragons, was a significant display of force. The main event of the two-week session, it featured thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops emerging on three beaches from amphibious assault vehicles dispatched from some of the 11 ships. Once ashore, they dashed to fight unidentified “aggressors” hidden behind rows of trucks.

The U.S. brought in 55 aircraft for the exercise, including nearly two dozen MV-22 Ospreys, aircraft with vertical landing and takeoff capabilities. While unpopular among local residents in Okinawa due to their noise and a perception they are prone to crashes—a claim the U.S. denies—the Ospreys are a key component of the Marine Corps’ new Asia strategy because of their ability to operate flexibly in areas with small islands and during disasters such as last year’s typhoon in the Philippines.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such large-scale exercises were difficult. For example, three of the four Marine infantry battalions previously stationed in Okinawa were deployed elsewhere, said Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of Marine Forces Japan, at a news conference aboard USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, during this week’s drill. All four battalions are now back on Okinawa. The Marine Corps is close to completing its rebalancing, with 19,000 troops already stationed in the Asian Pacific. The goal is 22,000 troops by 2017. This year, Marines are expected to train or engage in 21 of the 36 nations it counts in the region, Gen. Wissler said. “We see this as a significant rebalance.”

North Korea on the same day as the landing drill fired hundreds of artillery shells off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, prompting South Korea to fire back. None of the shells hit land.

While U.S. and South Korean military officials said the exercise wasn’t targeted at North Korea or any specific nation, some military experts say such joint drills are conducted to build deterrence against potential aggression while preparing for emergencies.

“If the situation in North Korea becomes unstable, it would be a critical task for the U.S. and South Korea to land and secure its nuclear facilities,” said Masayuki Masuda, a senior fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, an arm of the Defense Ministry.

The U.S. Marines have been working with emerging amphibious forces in Japan and the Philippines, two countries entangled in bitter territorial disputes with China.

In Australia, rotational deployment and training of U.S. troops have started.

The marine force of China’s PLA, with more than 10,000 troops, has acquired more amphibious ships and conducted exercises more frequently in recent years, military experts say. The PLA is already “capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan,” said the Pentagon in its latest annual report to congress on China’s military developments.

“I am of a view that in the coming era, we should have the Marines as widely deployed and as often as we can in the region as a way of showing the flag,” said Wallace Gregson, a retired Marine lieutenant general who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It’s not warmongering. It’s deterrence.”

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