The government may shift noisy night-flying drills by U.S. Navy warplanes to an uninhabited island in Hiroshima Prefecture and away from the Atsugi air base in Kanagawa Prefecture, defense sources said Thursday.
The Defense Facilities Administration Agency and local authorities plan to allow the exercises to be carried out from Okurokami Island, located in the Seto Inland Sea and under the jurisdiction of the town of Okimi, Hiroshima Prefecture, the sources said.
Town authorities have agreed to allow the construction of a U.S. drill site, including a 2-km-long runway for night-landing practice that would be built by the national government, the sources said.
The aircraft are off the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
Later Thursday, Okimi Mayor Hidekazu Tanimoto formally conveyed to the town assembly the municipality’s desire to host the drills.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda acknowledged earlier in the day that the municipality is interested in hosting the drills.
“The town of Okimi has shown interest in (the relocation),” Fukuda said. “We will see what kind of final decision the town makes.”
But Fukuda said Miyake Island, some 200 km south of Tokyo, is still being considered as a possible site.
“It’s not that Miyake Island has been ruled out,” he said. “We will consider the matter comprehensively.”
However, Miyake was evacuated in September 2000 due to volcanic activity, which has yet to subside.
Okurokami Island has an area of 7 sq. km. Okimi hopes that hosting the exercises will help invigorate its local economy, particularly as it will receive national subsidies for hosting a U.S. military facility. At the same time, the town is currently in merger negotiations with three other towns nearby, and whether these municipalities are also willing to accept the plan will be one factor in the national government’s final decision on the drill relocation, the sources said.
Mayor Tanimoto said Okimi approached the national government last summer, and only he and the deputy mayor were involved in the negotiations.
“This was not something that the national government pushed onto us,” he said. adding that he hopes to explain the plan to local residents and hold discussions with neighboring municipalities.
Recently, jets from the 83,960-ton Kitty Hawk conducted night exercises at the Atsugi base and at temporary facilities on Iwojima, an uninhabited island about 1,200 km south of Tokyo, under a bilateral agreement between Japan and the U.S.
Atsugi, which the U.S. Navy shares with the Maritime Self-Defense Force, is in a densely populated area and there have been many complaints from residents about noise from the nighttime drills.
Before the volcano started acting up, the government had said it would build a new airport on Miyake Island for the night-landing drills. But the plan did not make any headway due to strong opposition from island residents, so the government built the site on Iwojima.
The U.S. military has been reluctant to move all exercises to Iwojima due to its distance from mainland Japan. It has also expressed concern over using Miyake because drills could be disturbed by volcanic activity.
According to the city of Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, one of the municipalities that the Atsugi base occupies, night-landing practice began there in February 1982. Such exercises were conducted on 156 days between fiscal 1991 and last Jan. 20.
Yamato Mayor Kimiyasu Tsuchiya welcomed Okimi’s interest in hosting the exercises.
“It is indeed a piece of good news. We would like to see how the situation develops.”
But residents near the Atsugi base critical of noise levels were skeptical, saying noisy flight drills are also carried out during the day., and unless these are also relocated, it would not fundamentally change the problem.
Tokio Kaneko, a member of the Sagamihara Municipal Assembly who regularly monitors the base, said: “Ninety percent of the noise generated at Atsugi comes from regular activities. Just moving the night exercises to Hiroshima will only create a new noise pollution problem there.”
The Kitty Hawk, whose forward-deployed port is Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, carries about 75 aircraft and has a ship’s crew of 2,800. When under way, onboard personnel, including the air wing, exceed 5,000.
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