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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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US Marines Train Off Okinawa

Yoichiro Tateiwa

Feb. 18, 2016

US Marines stationed in the southern Japanese prefecture of Okinawa took part in a training exercise, in the wake of Pyongyang launching what it called a satellite, which has heightened tensions in the region.

The USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship serving as a sea-borne base for US Marines, was at sea at an undisclosed location in the area. On board were 2,000 members of the Marine Corps.

It was 4 days after North Korea launched the rocket.

The troops are with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. Amphibious assaults or water-led assaults are their specialty. When a conflict breaks out, they’re the first to be sent in.

The US Marine Corps has 6 expeditionary units on the US mainland. The 31st is the only one deployed overseas. Should a conflict breakout in the Asia-Pacific region, the unit would be the first one dispatched.

The air fleet includes Harrier jets, helicopters and Osprey aircraft, all with vertical takeoff capabilities.

Air power is what makes the Marines unique among US forces. The Marine Corps lacks in troop numbers, but air support gives them mobility and tactical strength.

The public affairs officer says the exercise is just a routine mission. But Marines onboard say they're aware of the situation on the Korean peninsula.

“I think everybody recognizes it. It's pretty much all over in the news, every country around the world. So definitely recognize it, but that's why we are always out here ready no matter what, whether we get called or not. Just to be here in case. People we need to defend, need our help, we are always ready,” says Lt. Thomas Sweetin. “That's why we are on the ship. That's why we are forward deployed."

Meal time is the only chance they have to relax. Their training continues until late at night.

On the second day, 150 fully armed troops boarded Osprey aircraft and headed for a distant island.

About 90 minutes later, they landed. It was a drill and the scenario was an airfield overwhelmed by enemy forces.

The number of enemy was more than double the Marines. The aim was to contain a large number of enemy troops.

But firearms weren’t used. Instead, they checked if the Marines exactly followed the simulated procedures.

They split into two directions. One went to an airfield. The other was assigned to take out the enemy bunkers. After about an hour, they captured the airfield. The drill included handling enemy bodies and prisoners.

They stayed there for 3 days. The reason is that the Marines are the first to be sent into conflict. Their job is to secure an area and hold it until a larger military force arrives. That takes at least 3 days.

Marine commanders use this scenario to prepare the troops for an emergency, no matter where they're deployed.

“It’s really my job to maintain this force and to be ready to respond if we are called to do so,” says Col. Romin Dasmalchi, commander of 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“It could be, as you mentioned, tensions on the peninsula, but it could be anything, it could be elsewhere. This is the vast area of responsibility. It is the largest of all the combat commands."

NHK World's Yoichiro Tateiwa joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So Yoi, they call it an exercise and routine mission. But as the young Marines in the report said, they were aware of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Do you think the two are linked?

Tateiwa: Well yes, I think it really links. US forces haven't disclosed details of the Marines' activities. But they were sent after North Korea announced the rocket launch. We initially planned to join the Marines at sea a bit earlier. But we couldn't get in touch with them after the rocket launch. It was a few days later when they gave us permission to board their ship. So I think the exercise is in response to the provocative launch. A spokesperson always says “this is a routine mission.” But that’s what they always say. So I think that that’s strictly linked to the North.

Beppu: What do you think is behind the decision to allow a press like you to get on the ship?

Tateiwa: I think the US military wanted to show they were seriously responding to North Korea's moves. When US forces show their drills to the media, they usually go for something with lots of explosions, gunfire, something kind of dramatic. But it’s just a show. They have little strategic significance. What they showed us was totally different. Nothing spectacular, just very practical. I think the officers were showing us they're serious about North Korea. But at the same time, they never disclosed where the ship was sailing. We found out it was in the East China Sea, but they didn't mention this. In a way, US forces are trying not to provoke North Korea, I think.

Beppu: Taking about the Marines, looking at it from the other hand, back here in Japan, they are the center of a controversy over decades. Namely the issue of relocating its Futenma Air Station.

Tateiwa: There has been a lot of debate about relocating the facility elsewhere. Okinawa represents less than 1 percent of Japan's total land mass. But the prefecture is home to more than 70 percent of US military facilities in Japan. The prefectural government is demanding this burden on its people be reduced. This time we also went to Futenma Air Station to find out what's happening there.

The Futenma Air Station is home to a fleet of Osprey aircraft. The facility is located in a heavily populated residential area. It's been criticized for putting the lives of residents at risk, and for noise pollution.

The US government agreed to return the land used as the Futenma Air Station to Okinawa in 1996. But 20 years after the agreement was reached, Futenma remains in the hands of the US Marine Corps.

The main reason for this is the controversy over where to move the base.

Officials in Tokyo and Washington agreed to build a new airfield offshore, alongside an existing US base in a less populated northern part of the prefecture.

People who are opposed to the relocation maintain that building another airfield does not mean a reduction in military facilities in Okinawa.

But Col. Romin Dasmalchi, commander of 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, says Futenma’s functions need to stay in the prefecture.

“These two elements, air and ground, and I would add the logistics, they all need to be close together, so that they can train together, when the time comes they can be deployed together,” he says. “They should be close because they are all we call them mutually supporting."

However, a military expert based in Okinawa says because the troops are moving around the region in their vessels most of the time, they do not necessarily need to be stationed in Okinawa.

"The US marines are trying to maintain security in the whole region. That way, they can protect Japan as well. It's not just about Futenma," Tomohiro Yara says in Japanese.

"The entire Marine unit does not have to be stationed in Okinawa as far as military operations are concerned. It's just convenient for the US, since they get financial support from the Japanese government."

Shibuya: So what will the US Marines be doing in the region?

Tateiwa: US forces say the Marines will remain in waters near Okinawa for a while. Later, they'll move to South Korea for a joint military exercise. North Korea has been voicing strong opposition, saying it's a hostile act. This year's drill is expected to be the largest ever held by the two countries. Experts say it's clearly aimed at highlighting the US forces' presence in the region.