WASHINGTON – The top commander of U.S. military forces stationed in Okinawa on Thursday ruled out the possibility of the Marine Corps leaving a contentious air base before a replacement facility is operational.
“The answer is no,” Lt. Gen. John Wissler told an event in Washington when asked whether the marines could suspend the use of Futenma air station and move to an existing base elsewhere before the replacement airstrip is built.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government has called for the Futenma base, which is in Ginowan, to suspend operations within five years because of the dangers it poses to the densely populated area.
“I need a new facility to move the capabilities that are currently resident at Futenma,” said Wissler, who also serves as commander of the U.S. Marines in Japan.
Under a bilateral accord, the Japanese and U.S. governments aim to build a Futenma replacement facility farther north on Okinawa Island in the Henoko district of the city of Nago.
But Tokyo and Washington have yet to set a concrete time frame for the construction of the Nago facility’s runways, which would extend offshore, due to local opposition that has stymied the project for nearly two decades.
The commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Force also said the marines are set to transfer this summer a KC-130 airborne tanker wing from Futenma to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
The KC-130 relocation plan became possible with the completion of a new facility to accommodate the aircraft at the Iwakuni base, Wissler said.
Thus it would be impossible for other Futenma operations and equipment, including the MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft, to be moved to another base unless such a new facility to host them was built, he said.
The Japanese and U.S. governments have been working on relocating the Futenma base in line with a bilateral agreement originally struck in 1996 in a bid to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. military facilities.
In Okinawa on Friday, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima rejected Wissler’s view, repeating the prefecture’s request for the Futenma base to suspend operations within five years. The governor demanded that about half of the 24 Osprey deployed to Futenma be moved out of Okinawa as soon as possible.