OSAKA — With possible new locations for the Futenma air base being suggested or reported on a seemingly daily basis, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama now has very few political options to propose to the U.S.
Top U.S. officials say that whatever alternate suggestions are made, it’s critical the replacement facility be somewhere that allows the different land, sea, and air units to function cohesively, so they can train and operate as effectively as a championship baseball team.
“All elements of a Marine Air Ground Task Force must train together continuously. A MAGTF is a lot like a baseball team. It doesn’t do you any good to have the outfielders in one town, the catcher in another, and the third baseman somewhere else,” said Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, during a speech in Tokyo in February.
The recent confusion over where to relocate Futenma and the various options floated by people close to Hatoyama are reminiscent of the debate that took place about 14 years ago. And if history is a guide, none of the suggestions in or out of Okinawa Prefecture heard so far are likely to be embraced by the U.S., at least not without more long, hard negotiations.
In December 1996, the U.S. and Japan issued a final report on Okinawa agreeing to return a number of U.S. facilities to Japan.
The agreement was to replace Futenma by constructing a sea-based facility with a 1,500-meter-long facility, including a 1,300-meter runway, that would support most of Futenma’s flight operations. After a decade of no progress, a new agreement calling for two runways 1,800 meters long each, was reached in 2006, but local opposition also stalled that agreement.
Past government documents suggest that the U.S. and Japan had already looked at a number of options regarding Futenma prior to December 1996.
According to reports by the bilateral Special Action Committee on Okinawa released in summer and autumn 1996, the committee looked at the possibility of not only integrating Futenma and Kadena but also four other options that ranged from building a new base next to Kadena to using some Self-Defense Forces bases on Japan’s four main islands.
The committee concluded in its July 1996 report that while it was physically possible to combine the Futenma and Kadena bases, there were a number of logistic issues that made it problematic. And by the time the October and November reports came out, the idea of combining Futenma with Kadena had been dropped in favor of a sea-based facility.
“The collocation of Futenma and Kadena will have a negative impact on U.S. force readiness. During a contingency, 6,000 takeoffs and landings per month, or one every two to three minutes, would occur with collocation. Additional aviation operations into Kadena during a contingency are either not feasible or will require additional heavy ramp (taxiways and parking areas) construction or an additional airfield,” the July 1996 report reads.
Closing Futenma without a convenient replacement would mean the U.S. would likely have to use Naha International Airport to handle additional flights when military needs dictate it, impacting commercial air traffic, the report continued.
Even in peace time, combined marine and air force flights into Kadena would mean heavier air traffic, which not only would lead to more complaints of noise in the surrounding areas but also increase the potential for midair collisions between military aircraft arriving at Kadena in central Okinawa and commercial jets landing at Naha to the south.
But the report concluded that the main problem of combining Futenma with Kadena is that air traffic controllers would have to deal with not only more aircraft but many different varieties.
“Fixed-wing aircraft arrive and depart Kadena at speeds as high as three times greater than helicopters,” it said, adding that to enable many different kinds of aircraft to take off and land safely, Kadena would need to extend its hours of operations beyond the 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule it follows now to reduce noise levels surrounding the base.
The four other options were also explored in the July 1996 report, but they were rejected because they didn’t meet minimum capacity requirements or were too far away from other marine units.
Minimal requirements for the marine units operating out of Futenma are a 1,600-meter runway and 280,000 sq. meters of ramp space available for parking, loading and unloading, and Futenma currently has a 2,740-meter runway and about 376,000 sq. meters of ramp space, the report said.
The four options included building a new runway and support facilities at the Kadena ammunition storage area north of the air base, constructing a new civilian-military joint-use airfield near Camp Schwab, relocating some operations to nearby Iejima, and using Self-Defense Forces bases in mainland Japan for emergency deployments.
But the ammunition storage area site was judged a bad location due to its immediate proximity to Kadena, which would mean the same kind of airspace problems with Naha airport that collocating with Kadena would pose, and because more land would have to be purchased for hangar and maintenance facilities. Perhaps most problematic, Highway 58, which connects Naha in the south with Nago in the north, runs through the area, which would have meant a major rerouting effort.
Relocating Futenma within Camp Schwab, on Cape Henoko, was considered a possible option provided a runway at least 1,600 meters long was available. But that could only be done with landfill.
In the case of Iejima, just off the main island of Okinawa, the U.S. said moving there would reduce traffic conflicts with Naha airport, but that the auxiliary airfield there is smaller than Futenma, and that space to build hangar and maintenance facilities would be needed.
Finally, the use of SDF bases elsewhere for contingency deployments of helicopters was considered. Logistically there were few problems because several Japanese bases had the runway length and facilities the marines required. But the July 1996 report noted there were political problems with this idea.
U.S. officials in 1996, as well as today, have also pointed out that simply closing Futenma and moving somewhere else, be it the White Beach area in eastern Okinawa, nearby Iejima, Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture, or even Guam, might solve a political problem for Japan but create another one for the marines: the need for an alternate airport in case weather or emergency reasons prevent marine aircraft from landing at their primary airport.
In practice, the 1996 report said, this would mean either using Naha International Airport or landing at an airport well beyond the maximum 320-km distance from Okinawa that safe operations require.
As for a possible move to Guam, U.S. officials have pointed out that spreading the marines all over the Pacific, from Hawaii to Guam to Okinawa, would increase not only travel times but also fuel costs. It would also reduce the ability of the marines to respond to not only a regional military crisis but also provide immediate aid in the case of a humanitarian disaster.
“The only readily deployable U.S. ground forces between Hawaii and India are the U.S. Marines located on Okinawa. They led U.S. humanitarian assistance efforts in Indonesia, Bangladesh and (Myanmar), often in close coordination with their counterparts in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces,” said Michael Schiffer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia at a congressional hearing last month.
“Transit time by sea from Okinawa to mainland Japan is one to two days, to Korea, two days, to the South China Sea, three days, and to the Straits of Malacca, five days. There is probably nowhere better in the world from which to dispatch marines to natural disasters, when hours matter,” Pacific commander Stalder said in February.
As the requirements of the marines and past negotiations demonstrate, finding a place that meets operational needs, the security needs of the Japan-U.S. security relationship, and the political needs of both Tokyo and Okinawa has proved an impossible task since 1996, and it is unlikely to become any easier in the few weeks remaining until Hatoyama announces the supposedly final decision on the issue.