The U.S. government sounded out Japan in early April about pulling out all of the approximately 40 F-16 fighters from Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, possibly beginning later this year, sources close to Japan-U.S. relations said Friday.
As part of the ongoing review of the U.S. defense strategy by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States at the time also told Japan of an idea to remove some of the more than 50 F-15 fighters at its Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture, they said.
Both of the proposals are pending, however, as Japan has shown reluctance due to concern about the situation in North Korea and the possible impact on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.
Japan and the United States have agreed on realignment plans on the basis of the current composition of U.S. forces in Japan.
But consultations on the overtures may commence after the incoming administration of Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama is launched this week.
The proposed cut in F-15s at Kadena could lead to a review of the stalled relocation plan for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa.
An idea for integrating the airfield functions of the Futenma base with Kadena has been surfacing intermittently within the Japanese government.
If the number of F-15 fighters is reduced as sounded out, the integration plan could emerge again because the reduction would give Kadena the capacity to accept the airfield functions of Futenma.
In May 2006, Japan and the United States agreed to relocate the airfield functions of Futenma Air Station to a less densely populated area in another Okinawa city, Nago, as part of the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. But the plan triggered a backlash among local residents.
The proposed withdrawal of the F-16s and the cut in F-15s at Kadena would be welcomed by local communities because they would help to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. bases by cutting aircraft noise and the chance of accidents.
At the same time, however, there is concern among Japanese officials that such the moves could send the wrong message to North Korea and China at a time when Pyongyang has conducted missile and nuclear tests and Beijing is rapidly modernizing its military.
The F-16s were deployed at the Misawa base during the Cold War in the 1980s, and some defense experts believe the planes could be used for a so-called surgical attack against North Korea now that the Cold War is over.
But some in both the Japanese and U.S. governments apparently believe that the significance of the deployment at Misawa has diminished because it is less possible to conduct such an attack.
And even if the need for a surgical strike were to arise, it could be conducted by aircraft carrier-based fighters or from Guam, they said.
A Japanese government source said next-generation F-35 fighters could be flown from Guam and stationed at Misawa on a rotational basis if the F-16s are pulled out. But full production of F-35s has not made headway, and deployment of the planes is unlikely to start for at least five years, so there could be a period where there are no U.S. fighter planes regularly stationed at Misawa Air Base.
At a news conference on April 6, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed ending the production of F-22 fighters. He also proposed decommissioning 250 older fighters, including F-16s.
The Foreign Ministry relayed the overtures to the Defense Ministry, but the government has decided to keep them secret, given their impact on the Japan-U.S. security alliance, they said.