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12th Marine Littoral: We visit a newly formed U.S. Marine Corps unit based in Japan


President Joe Biden hosts Japan's prime minister, Fumio Kishida, this week for a state visit intended to highlight closer cooperation between the two countries' militaries. Both the U.S. and Japan are adapting and shifting their forces to deter potential adversaries, including China. To see some of the changes on the ground, NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us along on his visit to a newly formed U.S. Marine Corps unit based in Japan. And just a warning to you, this story includes the sound of gunfire.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Marines are bushwhacking through the jungle as part of land navigation training. I'm with the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment on Okinawa in Japan, and this unit was set up just in November of last year. The 12th MLR, as it's called, is the second of three new units to be set up. Each has about 2,000 personnel. Captain Robert Heintzen says this training helps them to get used to Okinawa's terrain and climate.

ROBERT HEINTZEN: Due to the fact that visibility in the jungle - out here is probably only 10 to 15 meters at best - it adds a significant level of difficulty.

KUHN: The Marines find their objectives and call them in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five Natasha, this is Team (ph)...

KUHN: They practice using maps and compasses instead of GPS devices that could give away their position. That's because they're within missile range of possible adversaries such as China. 12th MLR Lieutenant Colonel Dan O'Connell explains.

DAN O'CONNELL: We view ourselves already well within the enemy's weapon engagement zone. We're deployed and here with our partners, prepared to defend the Japanese homeland. So the importance of 12th MLR is that we are already here, able to be where we need to be.

KUHN: The MLRs are designed to be agile and stealthy. They've got fewer Marines, tanks, aircraft and artillery, but more missiles. With the missiles, the Marines can try to control choke points between islands that separate China from the wider Pacific, in order to hem China in. But Yoji Koda, a former commander of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet, says that spreading troops over remote islands comes with its own challenges.

YOJI KODA: Japan failed to protect all the islands in the Pacific during World War II.

KUHN: Koda says that once Japan lost control of the sea to the U.S., it couldn't resupply its troops. The result?

KODA: Many of the Japanese Marines, more than 50%, are not killed by U.S. bombardment. They dead by starving.

KUHN: 12th MLR Lieutenant Colonel O'Connell says that what the U.S. can't supply, the MLRs can buy from Japan's Self-Defense Forces or civilians.

O'CONNELL: The ability to contract it in the local environment is something the Marine Corps has been doing, probably since 1775.

KUHN: But Fumio Nozomi, an expert on Japan-U.S. relations at Okinawa International University, says that could make things difficult for residents.

FUMIAKI NOZOE: (Through interpreter) There will be less of a boundary between military and civilian life, and it could lead to an increased burden on Okinawa in either emergency or training situations.

KUHN: Due to agreements with Japan, the Marines have to go off Okinawa to practice firing missiles. On the island, they're limited to practicing with smaller weapons, some of which Captain Heintzen points out.

HEINTZEN: So what we have going on right here is a crew-served weapons range. We have MK-19s, M240 Bravos and M2A1 50 cals.


KUHN: Lieutenant Colonel Sarah Bobrowski, a communication strategy and operations officer with the 12th MLR, says her unit is still evolving, but ready.

SARAH BOBROWSKI: Still happening, still getting personnel, but MLR has all the capabilities it needs right now and, if called upon, could go anywhere at any time.

KUHN: Critics of the reforms argue that the new marine units might work well in the Western Pacific, but not in different environments. Marine Corps leaders dispute that idea. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Marine Corps colonel, says that the U.S. can't just tailor its forces to one theater and ignore other global commitments.

MARK CANCIAN: Russia invades Ukraine. The United States can't say, hey, you know, we're focusing on China, you know, Europeans, you handle this.

KUHN: Cancian notes that some retired U.S. generals argued against the reforms, but the U.S. government approved and funded the overhaul.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Okinawa, Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.