An alternative to the Henoko plan

With the start of work to construct part of seawalls for land reclamation on the shores of the Henoko area of Nago,Okinawa Prefecture, the project to build a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has entered a critical stage. The work will not only irreparably destroy the natural environment of the site, including the habitat of the critically endangered Okinawa dugong, but also could ignite tenacious resistance from Okinawans, including more legal action by Gov. Takeshi Onaga to halt the construction, further deepening the standoff between the national government and the prefecture.

The Abe administration should stop and think whether it’s the right policy to stick to the Henoko plan as the “only solution” to the Futenma problem. The government should first consider whether it is necessary to build the Henoko facility at a time when the capabilities of the U.S. forces and Self-Defense Forces are being beefed up elsewhere.

The U.S. Air Force has Kadena Air Base on the same island — the largest U.S. military installation in the Asia-Pacific region. In January, the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture started receiving a squadron of F-35B stealth fighters. Some 60 carrier-borne aircraft will also start moving to Iwakuni in July from the Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture, increasing the number of aircraft there to about 120. The Ground Self-Defense Force will establish a 3,000-member amphibious strike force, which will include Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, in 2018 to defend Okinawa and other islands. These developments seem to weaken the case for building a new base in Okinawa to take over Futenma’s functions.

Under a 2012 Japan-U.S. agreement, 9,000 of 19,000 marines stationed in Okinawa will be transferred overseas — 5,000 to Guam, 2,500 to Australia on a rotational basis and 1,500 to Hawaii, with the transfer to Guam to start in the first half 2020s. If the plan is completed, most of the Marine Corps members remaining in Okinawa will be headquarters personnel stationed around Okinawa Island, except for the 2,000-member 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is headquartered at Camp Hansen, and its support groups, including aircraft at Futenma. The administration should consider whether the 31st MEU, which would rely on the Henoko facility, needs to stay in Okinawa by examining what the planned transfer means in practical terms.

In 2012, Mike Mochizuki, an associate professor at George Washington University, and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, proposed leaving only 5,000 to 8,000 marines in Okinawa, bringing the rest back to the U.S. and building a helipad on an existing Marine Corps base in Okinawa, in view of strong local opposition to the Henoko plan and the huge expenses of the planned transfer. In February, the New Diplomacy Initiative, a Tokyo think tank, released a report proposing to move the 31st MEU overseas in view of the marine unit’s operations. It stays in Okinawa for less than one-third of the year on average for rest and training. Its main mission is visiting Southeast Asian nations aboard landing ships based in Sasebo to take part in joint training for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief.

The report says that since a military contingency requires forces much larger in size than the 31st MEU, what is needed is adequate logistical prepositioning and securing the means to transport such forces in emergencies. In addition to moving the 31st MEU abroad, it proposes that Japan provide high-speed transport vessels so that they, along with the Sasebo-based landing ships, can transport the 31st MEU for its operations and create a system under which government funds set aside for the maintenance of marine facilities in Okinawa can also be spent on overseas facilities used by the 31st MEU. The proposal, the think tank says, will make both the Futenma and Henoko facilities unnecessary and cost much less than the Henoko construction.

Given its small space — only 38 percent of the Futenma base — and short runways —1,600 meters compared with Futenma’s 2,800 meters, the Henoko facility cannot handle large-scale humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations — a key mission of the marines in peacetime — and won’t be capable of contributing to beefing up the transport capabilities of the U.S. forces as a whole. Instead of clinging to the Henoko plan, the Abe administration should at least explore the proposed alternative to the Futenma relocation project, which could prevent its confrontation with Okinawa from developing into a situation in which local sentiment deepens against the U.S. military presence on the island itself.