Emerging Threats to U.S. Personnel on Okinawa

February 13, 2021

In 2019, an incendiary device was unsuccessfully employed by an unknown intruder outside the office of the Okinawa Defense Bureau. The device failed to detonate, and no one was injured, but the message and intent were clear. The incident happened a few days after a Japanese government announcement that controversial construction and landfill work at Camp Schwab would resume. A quarter-century ago, the United States and Japan agreed to eventually close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and relocate it to Camp Schwab after the brutal rape of a Japanese civilian by three service members in 1995. However, it took decades to get the project started, and its original projected completion date was six years ago. Now, the current estimates have the airfield finished within a decade. This delay has exacerbated an already volatile political/military environment on the island.

There may always be a few bad Americans who do horrible things on the island, and violence on Okinawa is not new. The Koza riots of 1970 erupted after a drunken U.S. service member, driving his car, hit an Okinawan man. The incident was a flashpoint of built-up local resentment, and rioters burned 80 cars and even stormed Kadena Air Base, setting fire to various buildings. Long-simmering resentment over the U.S. presence has boiled over many times throughout the years, going back to Commodore Matthew Perry's visit to Naha in 1853, when three sailors went on a "tipsy spree." One of them "entered a house in town and committed rape." Locals killed him before he could get back to his ship. Other high-profile events include the 1955 brutal rape and murder of a local six-year-old girl named Yumiko. Her body was found on Kadena Air Base.

In 1967, an Okinawan author named Tatsuhiro Ōshiro published a novella called The Cocktail Party. The story examined the difficult relationship between the U.S. military and Okinawa. The protagonist is an Okinawan man who attends a cocktail party on base, hosted by a U.S. military officer. Later that night, the protagonist finds out his daughter is raped by a U.S. soldier. He is unable to get help with the investigation, and he becomes disillusioned.

In 2008, a married Marine staff sergeant was arrested for raping a local 14-year-old girl, which resulted in Marines, sailors, and their family members being restricted to base for months. In 2017, a U.S. military contractor and former Marine was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman. That same year, a young Marine with a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit killed a 61-year-old Okinawan man in a vehicle crash. In 2019, a U.S. sailor stabbed a Japanese woman to death, apparently in front of her child, before killing himself.

Every few years, a new shocking incident propels Okinawa and the Marine Corps into international headlines, which leads to more base lockdowns and stringent liberty restrictions. It is impossible to stop all criminal acts by service members on Okinawa, and no amount of mandatory training or restrictions will achieve zero incidents. However, the current political climate on the island practically dictates that Americans must collectively prostrate themselves or face severe backlash every time a member of the U.S. military does something horrible or stupid. As a result, the United States has painted itself into a corner. It will never stop all the bad behavior of every service member. Those who have been protesting outside of bases such as Camp Schwab for years know this. They also know all Marines are punished for the crimes of a few. Protestors successfully use this fact to their advantage daily, and they have built a sturdy encampment right up against the perimeter of Camp Schwab.

The number of protestors has dwindled considerably in the past few years, and their average age hovers around 70 (they even bring chairs). However, their impact on the international stage is still powerful. Certain aggressive protestors have identified locals who work on base and they have blocked their cars from entering. They have blocked military vehicles from leaving base and they continue to block Schwab's main construction gate about three times a day. Traffic backs up in both directions, and the main road becomes a quagmire. The Japanese police are slow to stop the activity, but they eventually move protestors to the side, and traffic flows again. Then, the grand play continues and repeats itself. There are other routines happening as well.

Camp Schwab has consistently had the most drone incursions of any Marine Corps base for years. Base leaders know who the main offenders are and where they launch from, but do not have authority to stop them if they launch from Japanese soil. Last year, a new Japanese law was supposed to curtail drone flights near military bases, but the Japanese police have been reserved in their approach and often show up just as the drone pilots are packing up for the day.

Forget that Okinawa is a laidback, beautiful, tropical island paradise, and simply think of the U.S. facilities as bases in a foreign country. There are usually hundreds of nonmilitary people and large vehicles constantly moving in and around many bases, and civilians clog the main approaches to multiple facilities daily, observing the service's patterns and tactics. It is not difficult to acquire bomb-making materials locally, and a cheap, palm-sized encrypted device could be used as a remote detonator. For years, there has been a well-documented information-gathering campaign against the United States by nation-state actors on Okinawa, to include bugging the houses and computers of service members. Two years ago, Chinese nationals became the largest group of foreigners living in Okinawa.

U.S. service members and military facilities are definitely being observed and studied in Okinawa. How many U.S. enemies have already been on base and documented mass gathering areas and critical infrastructure? How hard would it be to execute an attack on a U.S. facility? When I say these things with my "out-loud" voice, I often receive a look of quiet indignation from various colleagues. "This is Okinawa," they say with a smirk, "It will never happen here."

The Marine Corps conducts robust antiterrorism measures on every base already, but keeping up with technology remains the most significant challenge. More than three decades ago, the U.S. embassy's construction in Moscow was stopped after thousands of listening devices were discovered embedded in the walls during construction. The same scenario could easily happen in Okinawa. Highly advanced portable hacking tools, listening devices, and badge cloning devices can all be carried in a laptop bag. A dedicated individual, posing as a computer technician and using basic social engineering techniques, could gain access to our networks from inside U.S. bases. It is always difficult to defend against that type of attack. One way to train Marines and sailors to be vigilant against such activity is to conduct third-party penetration testing, which currently is required for many civilian organizations in the states. Anyone who has been socially engineered and allowed a hacker to take over their system never forgets the experience.

Another layer of defense is the continued integration of Okinawans as part of the base security force. Somebody who was born and raised in Okinawa can spot something or someone that seems out of place quickly. Their understanding of local culture and their ability to gather unique information through observation helps detect and deter terrorist activity. However, an insider threat is always a reality, so the vetting process must remain continuous.

The military and civilian leaders who oversee base security also must have continuity. It takes years to understand the nuances of the island and how to protect the bases without disrupting daily activity. That is difficult to do if the people in charge rotate out every few years. U.S. enemies know that, and they are paying attention.