Expert pushes plan he says can quickly solve Futenma issue

by Tai Kawabata

Staff Writer

Military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa says that he has a plan that could solve the Futenma base mess in just two days.

Ogawa, head of the Yokohama-based Strategic Research Institute of International Change, called on the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to seriously consider his proposal as a substitute for relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the central part of Okinawa Island to the Henoko area in the northern part of the island, given that the Henoko plan is facing strident opposition from Okinawa’s residents.

Ogawa, who took part in negotiations with the U.S. in 2010 on the Futenma problem on behalf of the administration of then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan, said the most pressing issue is to immediately remove the dangers faced by local residents from aircraft operations at the Futenma base, which sits in a densely populated area in the city of Ginowan.

“The removal can be achieved in two days by temporarily moving Futenma’s helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to the land area inside the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab adjacent to the planned Henoko site,” Ogawa said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Under his plan, combat engineers from the Ground Self-Defense Force would level an area inside Camp Schwab to temporarily accept helicopters and Ospreys from the Futenma base. According to Ogawa, GSDF combat engineers have the training and experience to finish this kind of work in just a couple of days.

He said that if Futenma’s fixed-wing aircraft are also temporarily transferred to the Marine Corps’ Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture and the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the dangers to Ginowan residents will be completely removed.

Within a month, thousands of troops would be able to complete an apron, hangars, maintenance area, ammunition depot and fuel depot at the new site in Camp Schwab, according to Ogawa’s plan.

He criticized the Japanese government for not being serious about eliminating the dangers of accidents posed by the Futenma operations.

“The residents are living in the same conditions as in a battlefield,” he said. “Although the government says that the Henoko plan will remove the dangers, what it means is that such dangers will be removed only upon the completion of the Henoko site, whose completion is expected to take at least five years. This is utterly irresponsible.”

The biggest problem with the Henoko plan is its size, Ogawa said.

“The Henoko site amounts to only 38 percent of the Futenma base in terms of area, thus failing to meet the U.S. Marine Corps’ operational requirements both for peace time and contingencies,” he said. “This inadequacy of the Henoko site not only will cause problems to U.S. military planners in the future but also will negatively affect Okinawan people’s future efforts to have the U.S. government and the Marine Corps return U.S. military installations to them.”

“Even Okinawans who accept the Henoko plan should keep in mind that it will not bring a bright future to the prefecture,” he stressed. “Because the Marine Corps had to acquiesce to a less than an optimal plan, they will need to continue to use other facilities and will not readily cooperate in returning or integrating U.S. military facilities in Okinawa in the future. A situation similar to the Futenma relocation problem will crop up again.”

The main component of Ogawa’s plan is to construct a permanent airfield with a 2,500-meter-long runway, slightly shorter than Futenma’s 2,800-meter-long runway, by redeveloping the former Chimu airfield inside Camp Hansen in the central part of Okinawa Island and close to the island’s east coast. The U.S. Army built Chimu airfield in April 1945 with a 1,520-meter runway in just 10 days, but it has since fallen into disuse.

The Chimu replacement facility would eventually accommodate helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor planes as well as fixed-wing aircraft, including jet fighters and large transport planes from the Futenma base, thus meeting the Marine Corps’ operational requirements, Ogawa said. While construction work is in progress, the Futenma base would be kept open to cope with any emergency.

Since the U.S. engineering company PAE built a military airfield with a 2,700-meter-long runway in India in only 1½ years, Ogawa said that “the new Chimu airfield would be completed much faster than the Henoko site — within two to two and a half years — and would cost much less because it does not require land reclamation, unlike the Henoko plan.”

Although Ogawa’s plan may not fully satisfy Okinawan people’s demands that Futenma’s functions be moved out of Okinawa Prefecture all together, he stressed the plan’s strong points — financial transparency, no requirement for additional land or reclamation of land and negligible noise pollution.

Ogawa criticized the government for being unable to give concrete reasons why the Henoko plan is estimated to cost a whopping ¥350 billion. In comparison, the construction of Ishigaki Airport in Okinawa Prefecture, which has a 1,500-meter-long runway, cost only ¥50 billion, and the cost of building Shizuoka Airport, with a 2,500-meter-long runway, cost ¥190 billion.

Ogawa also pointed out that environment assessments for his plan can be completed within a year and that the Chimu airfield, located about 50 meters above sea level, would be free from the threat of tsunami, unlike the Henoko site.

The remaining component of Ogawa’s plan is to create and operate a temporary airfield to accommodate fighters and transport aircraft from Futenma that would cope with contingencies while the redevelopment of Chimu airfield is going on. These planes as well as helicopters and Ospreys would move to the new Chimu airfield as soon as it is completed.

Ogawa argues that his plan would even benefit the local economy.

“After helicopters, Osprey aircraft and fixed-wing aircraft move to the newly completed Chimu airfield, the temporary airfield in Camp Schwab for fixed-wing planes would be able to serve as a center for maintenance work for Asian commercial airplanes, thus contributing to Okinawa’s economic development.”

Ogawa said that in May 2010, during negotiations at the State and Defense departments in Washington, he gained the first indication that the U.S. government might support his proposal. In March that year, Hatoyama had offered to appoint Ogawa as a special adviser, in the presence of Yukihisa Fujita, director general of the DPJ’s international department. But to avoid media attention, Ogawa delayed taking the post, and, until preliminary negotiations with the U.S. were concluded, operated as an independent expert. During the Washington talks, the U.S. accepted him as an official member of the Japanese negotiation team, on condition that he was accompanied by a Japanese government official, he said.

At the talks, U.S. government representatives termed Ogawa’s proposal “the first concrete proposal from the Japanese side” and deemed it reasonable, Ogawa said. But the U.S. was not in a position to force the Japanese government to officially adopt Ogawa’s plan since Japan was to offer a replacement site for the Futenma airfield.

During the negotiations, U.S. officials candidly acknowledged that the Marine Corps were dissatisfied with the Henoko plan, Ogawa said.

But the U.S. accepted the plan out of political consideration, not from the viewpoint of military planning. Ogawa quoted the U.S. officials as saying that they understood that it was critical that the Futenma issue be settled as soon as possible so that the political stability of the U.S.-Japan alliance will be ensured for the sake of peace and security in Northeast Asia.

Ogawa pointed out that the use of the Henoko site by jet fighters and large transport planes was excluded from consideration from the beginning. Its planned two runways, to be arranged in a V shape, are each only 1,600 meters long, with 200-meter overrun areas, and are much shorter than the 2,500 meters needed for large transport planes such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster and the Antonov An-124 Ruslan. “Therefore the Henoko site cannot be used even for peacetime rescue operations in the event of a large-scale disaster,” Ogawa said.

Usually, the III Marine Expeditionary Force’s First Air Wing deploys some 60 aircraft at the Futenma base, but once a contingency happens the air wing is likely to deploy up to 456 aircraft there, Ogawa pointed out.

“There is the possibility that the U.S. will deploy 40,000 to 50,000 marines at Futenma during a contingency by using Civil Reserve Air Fleet charter flights. But the Henoko site will greatly fall short of the capabilities required to handle not only takeoffs and landings of a large number of transport planes carrying marines and their equipment but also encamping of a great number of marines and storing of a large quantity of marines’ equipment and supplies,” he said.

As for the prospects of the Henoko plan, Ogawa said that an environmental issue — opposition to reclaiming areas of coral and dugong territory off Henoko with landfill — could be a big obstacle. “If the construction work starts and then influential environmentalist leaders come out to the scene to push the environmental cause, there is a strong risk that the work will stop.”

Although the U.S. government supported and accepted Ogawa’s proposal and asked the Japanese side to unite behind it, this has not materialized because an aide to Hatoyama, who was from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, completely blocked communication between the prime minister and Ogawa, according to him. Another factor is that the Hatoyama administration was confused by a series of not-well-thought-out ideas being floated, he said.

Furthermore, Tsutomu Nonaka, chief Cabinet secretary in the administration of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi of the Liberal Democratic Party personally supported Ogawa’s plan but told him that bureaucrats did not like the idea of a plan proposed by a person like Ogawa, whose background was in journalism and who was not a bureaucrat. Ogawa also said that behind the adoption of the Henoko plan was buying of LDP lawmakers’ influence by an Okinawan businessman, who had bought up mountains of gravel to be used in the land reclamation work to create the Henoko site.

It is not known how ordinary citizens in Okinawa would react to Ogawa’s plan.

But Ogawa said that when he unveiled his plan to mayors of various Okinawa municipalities in January, none of them were against it. “Government leaders and bureaucrats should seriously take the fact that they have been unable to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base to local residents even though 18 years have passed since the Japan-U.S. agreement to relocate it,” he said.

Japan’s adoption of the plan will hand Japan a position to be able to strongly demand that the U.S. return other bases in Okinawa and even agree to revise the Status of Forces Agreement, which poses obstacles to the Japanese law-enforcement authorities’ investigation of crimes committed by U.S. soldiers, among other problems, Ogawa said.

“Reduction of U.S. military bases this way can serve as a basis for a long-term goal of achieving arms reductions in Asia and other parts of the world, for that matter, and gradually turning the Japan-U.S. security setup into a mechanism conforming to the pacifist principle as declared by the preamble of Japan’s Constitution, with the Self-Defense Forces, while sticking to the ‘defense-only defense’ posture, contributing more to international peace-building activities,” Ogawa said.

  • phu

    Hyperbole aside (no, the residents of Okinawa are not “living in the same conditions as in a battlefield”), I wonder why this has not received more attention.

    I can certainly understand being wary of a plan for military resources created by a journalist, and I think this article could definitely use a companion that identifies the potential down sides (because it’s hard to believe we’re getting the whole picture here), but there seems to be at least the start of a compelling alternative.

    • JimmyJM

      I completely agree. Mr. Ogawa’s plan seems to be an excellent plan. I’m sure the federal government wouldn’t accept it from him but if he could get a politician to promote it, it might become reality. But, as you mention, there must be some down side to this that needs to be explored.

      • phu

        Clearly there’s still the problem of “not in my back yard” for any plan to increase military (or any kind of perceptibly invasive) presence anywhere. While I think that’s sometimes justified, at this point we’re a little beyond making everyone happy. There’s also the problem of pollution and other environmental considerations that go with this sort of installation no matter where it’s located.

        I think there’s another interesting point raised here, if not directly: So many people (myself included) simply assumed that the agreed-upon plan was the only option, without considering that alternatives even existed. If the people involved would consider other options, not even necessarily this one, we might see a further reduction in the costs — least of all financial — and scope involved in a relocation or rebalancing of this military presence.

        I suspect, unfortunately, that vested interests (e.g. construction contracts) likely have a more prominent role in hindering such discussion than we can see from outside of the process.

  • Steppenwolf323

    I have a better solution. Stop with the adolescent inter-service non-cooperation and move the Futenma Marines to Kadena. Costs would be minimal as the facilities are already there and vastly underused.