The initiative, which Brooks is calling “Pacific Pathways,” is also an opportunity to recast the army’s image in Washington, yielding television images of soldiers — not just marines and sailors — responding to typhoons and cyclones. “We can no longer afford to build (combat) units and put them on a shelf to be used only in the event of war,” Brooks’s command wrote in an internal planning document.
To the Marine Corps, however, Brooks is committing the equivalent of copyright infringement. Marines regard themselves as America’s first — and only — maritime infantry force. They have troops in Asia that are not tied down in South Korea — three infantry battalions, an aviation wing and a full logistics group based in Okinawa — and, they note, they have an expeditionary unit that sails around Asia to conduct bilateral exercises and respond to crises. Those marines were among the first to respond to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last month.
“They’re trying to create a second Marine Corps in the Pacific,” said a marine general, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the army’s internal plans. “To save their budget, they want to build a force the nation doesn’t need.”
Okinawa’s governor on Friday acceded to U.S. plans to maintain a large marine contingent in the prefecture, despite local opposition, by approving site preparation for a new air base on the less-populated northern half of Okinawa Island. To win permission, the marines have pledged to relocate almost 5,000 personnel to the U.S. territory of Guam, which could bolster the army’s case for a small rotating force closer to mainland Asia.
The army-marine fight has profound implications for both services. If Brooks succeeds, army leaders would lay claim to a new strategic narrative and gain a powerful argument to stave off additional rounds of personnel cuts, while the marines could face an existential crisis without their exclusive expeditionary status. If he doesn’t, the army, which is planning to shrink from 540,000 to 490,000 soldiers by 2017, could become even smaller.
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