GUAM – Perhaps prophetically for the Guam buildup — which lately finds itself between a rock and a hard place, squeezed by debt crisis and politics in both the U.S. and Japan — the Marines have for years exercised adaptable thinking.

The flexibility of the Marines, America’s most nimble fighting force, may be the best thing the Guam military buildup has going for it right now. Scalable enough to provide – in the words of Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos – “options and decision space for our nation’s leaders,” the Marines are uniquely designed to deliver a broad spectrum of response solutions to any threat or crisis.

Since 2006 when the U.S. and Japan first agreed to realign troops across Asia-Pacific, including transferring thousands from Okinawa to Guam, Marine policy makers have developed and floated a host of force laydown options, demonstrating there is more than one way to achieve the military goals of the Guam buildup.

With the Pentagon lately taking heat from politicians jockeying to please American voters and markets weary from a decade of war, angry over the economy and nervous about the country’s debt, all military spending is now on the table for review. The $17.4 billion military construction program to prepare Guam for the Marines’ arrival is no exception, but the Marines are not without ideas for adapting either.

That flexibility has long been on display, such as in January when, responding to outcry over the Navy’s plan to locate a live-fire training range for the Marines near historic sites in Pagat village, Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work conceded to redesign the range to preserve unimpeded site access for the public.

Mr. Work also went on to promise that the Defense Department’s footprint on Guam would actually shrink by the end of the buildup – an important concession to islanders still bruised by the memory of the massive post-World War II military land grab.

Marine policy makers have floated more than a few laydown options for Guam, attempting to balance security conditions in Asia-Pacific with its Marine Air Ground Task Force operational requirements, all while working toward bilateral diplomatic agreement with Japan. The strategy has long been constantly evolving, spawning one implementation scenario after another.

An early option, for example, would have brought three Marine headquarters units to Guam, but as reported last April, more recent options have proposed a higher ratio of infantry units instead. The Marines have also thought about changing up the mix of rotational versus permanent units. But vetting laydown options is a methodical and time consuming process that must first rise through the Pentagon bureaucracy before review at the diplomatic level with Japan.

Under the weight of the U.S. debt crisis and cautious to play their political cards correctly with a presidential election just 14 months away, U.S. lawmakers are pressuring the Pentagon to recommend ways to slash defense spending. The Pentagon wants more time to finish a review of national security and military needs, and along those lines, time is needed to reassess the Asia-Pacific realignment and the Guam buildup and secure Japan’s support for any changes.

During his confirmation hearing to become Deputy Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter was pressed by Senate Armed Services member Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) for the Pentagon’s recommendations on how it would change national security strategy to meet budget cuts. The Senators needed the Pentagon’s guidance before mid-October, when the panel is scheduled to give its recommendations to the deficit super committee.

Even under duress, however, there is no skirting the policymaking and diplomacy necessary to achieve a final laydown plan for Guam or any changes to the bilateral accord with Japan. So any early recommendations would be provisional at best.

To survive the foreseeable future in American and Japanese politics, the Guam buildup will have to do as the Marines do: remain faithful – semper fi – and stay nimble enough to maneuver around the tight spots.


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Photo used in this article courtesy U.S. Marine Corps. Photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler C. Vernaza.