WASHINGTON – Japan and the United States have narrowed their options down to two on the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, but disagree on which one, a Pentagon official said Thursday.
The official confirmed the U.S. Defense Department is pushing to have an airport built just off the coast of the Marines Corps Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of Nago. The Defense Agency wants to construct the airport within camp limits.
Originally, it was decided a joint civil-military airport with a 2,500-meter-long runway would be built off Henoko at another site beyond the reef, but work never started due to local opposition.
The two sides have now basically agreed to build a military airstrip, with a 1,500-meter-long runway to accommodate the helicopter operations now at the Futenma base in Ginowan.
Both options shorten the construction period to about five years from the more than 10 years outlined in the initial airport plan.
But there is uncertainty over whether local authorities and residents will accept either option, underscoring the lack of progress in resolving the relocation.
The issue is at the center of ongoing negotiations on the realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan. The two nations plan to compile an interim report on the talks by the end of October.
The Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicated the two nations have abandoned the original joint-use airport plan.
“I personally don’t think that facility will ever be built and I think many people question whether there was ever any serious intention by the government of Japan to build that facility,” he said.
On the idea of moving the helicopter operations to the U.S. Kadena Air Base, also in Okinawa, recently mentioned in the media as a possible alternative, the official said it was “hardly a desirable solution” given the noise problems and operational hazards of helicopters and U.S. Air Force fighters using the same base.
While leaving the door open to the Japan-preferred option of building the airport inside Camp Schwab if Tokyo gets local support, the official said the U.S. was “very skeptical.”
He said Japan first needed to consider the Pentagon-favored plan and see if it was acceptable to the locals and from an operational standpoint.
“In any case, we think that fundamentally there has to be a way for the government of Japan and the local communities to come together and say this is what Japan and the local community support,” the official said.
“And it has to be something that meets the U.S. operational requirements. We think that offshore is a better way to meet the operational requirements, inside the reef in the shallow water areas.”
The official added that the inland option had “a lot of unanswered questions,” including issues of helicopters flying over communities and a “tremendous” amount of moving earth and destroying mountains to build the airport.
In contrast, he said the offshore option would allow helicopters to operate over water without affecting the communities nearby — one of the major reasons for relocating the Futenma base.
The official claimed the idea already had gained some local support, referring to recent comments by Nago Mayor Tateo Kishimoto expressing his possible acceptance of the military airstrip in shallow water and rejecting the Schwab plan.
But the offshore option still has the problem of what effects it might have on the marine environment, one of the major issues that stalled the first plan.
In the 1996 final report by the Special Action Committee on Okinawa, the two nations said they had examined three alternatives — moving the helicopters to the Kadena Air Base, building an airstrip for them in Camp Schwab and developing and building an offshore facility. The report says the offshore option was agreed upon, but does not specify a location.
Washington and Tokyo later agreed to build a civilian-military airport off Henoko.
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