FUKUOKA – U.S. F-15 fighters flew Monday to the Air Self-Defense Force base in Tsuiki, Fukuoka Prefecture, as part of a bilateral plan to disperse some air exercises from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to other parts of Japan.
The move, part of the U.S. military realignment plan finalized last May, marks the start of reducing the strain on Okinawa of hosting the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.
The five F-15 jets that arrived from Kadena were slated to begin a three-day dogfight drill Tuesday with four ASDF F-15s in areas north of Kitakyushu, around the Goto Islands in Nagasaki Prefecture and south of Shikoku, Defense Ministry officials said.
The last joint war games the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military conducted from the Tsuiki base were in 2002, the officials said.
To disperse noisy fighter drills, the U.S. and Japan have agreed to move them from Kadena and the joint U.S.-Japan bases in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, and Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, to six ASDF bases, where about 15 joint drills will be conducted in fiscal 2007.
The six bases are in Chitose, Hokkaido; the ASDF’s Misawa drill area; Hyakuri, Ibaraki Prefecture; Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture; Tsuiki; and Nyutabaru, Miyazaki Prefecture.
The city of Yukuhashi and the towns of Chikujo and Miyako, which jointly host the Tsuiki base, concluded a written agreement a week ago with the Fukuoka Regional Defense Facilities Administration Bureau on the provisions of joint exercises to be held there.
Although the upcoming drill will not take place early in the morning or at night, some residents remain concerned with the transfer of U.S. drills to the local base. About 20 residents and their supporters staged a sit-in in front of the base gate Monday morning to protest the transfer.
The Defense Facilities Administration Agency’s regional unit set up a liaison office inside the Tsuiki base for coordination with communities as well as the U.S. military.
To try to ward off trouble with the communities, ad hoc office staff will accompany U.S. military personnel when they go outside the base, officials said.
“I am still opposed to (the transfer of the drills to Tsuiki), but now that the government and the (host) cities have concluded an agreement, all we can do is to keep watching whether the drills are held in accordance with the agreement and whether safety steps are properly taken,” said Tatsuo Ikeda, 78, who lives near the runway at the base.
It remains unclear whether the burden on communities near Kadena will actually be reduced by dispersing F-15 drills because the U.S. deployed 12 state-of-the-art F-22A stealth fighters to the base last month apparently to maintain its deterrent power, although on a temporary term of several months.
Only a few of the bilateral initiatives for realigning the U.S. military presence in Japan have been carried out so far, due mainly to opposition from local governments affected by the plans.