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Emotionalized debate blurs valuable functions of Futenma

by Dan Melton and Robert D. Eldridge

CAMP BUTLER, Okinawa Pref. — In recent months, the issue of the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma has gotten a great deal of attention in the news — so much so that it has almost overshadowed the significance of this year being the 50th anniversary of the revision of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.

This is unfortunate because the U.S.-Japan alliance is an essential international public good that has served not only the mutual interests of Japan and the United States but those of the entire Asia-Pacific region for the past 60 years since the original security treaty of 1952.

It is also unfortunate because the discussion of Futenma’s relocation often takes place without a proper or correct understanding of the role, functions and capabilities of this important air station. Wild statements are made, such as in a recent letter to The Japan Times in which the reader wrote that the air station “has not been operational since the termination of the Vietnam War.” As a result, impractical solutions are put forth that blur and emotionalize the debate further.

We should point out that, fortunately, many people have tried over the years to be better informed about Futenma and continue to do so. For example, Futenma receives on average more than 25 official visits per year, including most recently that by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano as well as late last month by a delegation of the Upper House’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. This number does not include the tens of thousands of local Okinawan and mainland Japanese who visit Futenma for work and various other reasons, including the annual Flightline Fair.

Futenma is primarily a rotary-wing operating base and, as such, must be collocated with the 1st Marine Air Wing-supported major subordinate commands of III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). Futenma does this with its 2,740-meter runway, from which fixed wing also regularly operate, and its staff of approximately 2,000 men and women, 151 of whom are local Okinawans or from mainland Japan.

Its first mission is to fulfill the Western Pacific Operational Support Airlift requirements in support of III MEF and U.S. Marine Corps Bases Japan. Second, Futenma functions as a U.N. Command (Rear) Airfield. Third, the air station provides, maintains and operates all living, working and recreational facilities and services for personnel living or working on Futenma.

Finally, it provides, maintains and operates all airfield facilities and services for the safe and efficient operational support of both 1st Marine Air Wing and transient aircraft. An additional mission is to provide a diversionary airfield for civilian aircraft that experience mechanical or other difficulties.

The bottom line is that Futenma does indeed perform numerous vital roles, not only for the U.S. Marine Corps, but also for other U.S. services and the U.N. Command. Each of these missions contributes directly or indirectly to the defense of Japan and peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

The letter cited above also speculates about a situation on the Korean Peninsula: “A war on the Korean Peninsula would be quick. The North would be rapidly annihilated. The base would not be a factor.”

First, we should emphasize that we believe our robust presence of forward- deployed marines and the support facilities here in Japan, such as MCAS Futenma, contribute significantly to the deterrence necessary to prevent North Korea (and other countries) from miscalculating, and provide the U.S. and Japanese governments with the might behind the diplomacy.

In the event that deterrence failed and the Korean War was restarted by the North, it would probably not be a quick one as the reader suggests. In addition to the actual conflict and the preparations beforehand, the humanitarian crisis following the start of hostilities would have to be taken into consideration as well as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Not only do U.S. Marines operating from Futenma provide significant contributions to deterrence and defense of Japan and peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, but they are also actively involved in humanitarian assistance missions and Theater Security Cooperation designed to build transparency and trust in this region.

Importantly, there have been hundreds of thousands of lives saved in the region by the marines, such as during the 12 significant humanitarian assistance operations carried out in the past five years alone, including the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the disastrous tropical cyclones in Bangladesh (2007) and Burma (2008) in which units from III MEF stationed on Okinawa either directly led or significantly contributed to response efforts.

The U.S. Marines, being the only truly rapidly deployable ground troops in Northeast Asia, are always called on to be the first responders — the 911 force — to any crisis and continue to represent, along with the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army service components of U.S. Forces Japan and U.S. Pacific Command, the American commitment to the region. Futenma makes this all possible.

In response to Japanese requests, the U.S. government agreed twice, first in 1996 and then again in 2006, to conditionally relocate the functions of MCAS Futenma to the less-populated northern part of Okinawa Prefecture as long as capabilities were maintained.

We await the May decision of the new government of Japan to reaffirm these previous agreements not because “scenarios do not exist for [Futenma's] future use,” as the above-cited letter suggested, but very much because they do, and because Futenma’s daily role is vital to today’s missions as well.

Dan Melton, colonel USMC, is a former marine attache at the U.S. Embassy Tokyo with more than 20 years in the Asia-Pacific region. He currently serves as the assistant chief of staff, U.S. Marine Corps Bases Japan. Robert D. Eldridge, Ph.D., a 21-year resident of Japan, is a former associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations and Okinawan history at Osaka University. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.