Futenma’s defenders stress its regional security role


Second of two parts

With U.S. President Barack Obama coming to Tokyo on Friday, debate is heating up in Japan on what do about the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa.

Right from its launch in September, the new government led by the Democratic Party of Japan has been upping the diplomatic tension with the United States by floating various proposals to alleviate the “burdens of Okinawans,” who complain of noise pollution from Futenma and the danger of accidents involving military aircraft in the densely populated area.

The government’s flip-flops on where to move Futenma’s operations have reignited a long-running diplomatic headache with the U.S. and drawn strong criticism from experts and lawmakers deeply worried about the military alliance so vital to Japan’s security.

“We are talking about the deterrent aspect of the Marine Corps — not the navy or the army or the air force,” Liberal Democratic Party Lower House member Shigeru Ishiba pressed Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama during a Diet session last week.

Ishiba, a former defense minister known for his expertise on military matters, stressed that the U.S. Marines specialize in quick deployments and would provide the first response if a crisis erupts in the region.

Ishiba urged Hatoyama to consider the consequences if Futenma is shifted to a location where it can’t play this role.

“There is significance to the Marine Corps’ presence” in Okinawa, he said, adding that its deterrence factor protects not only Japan but the entire Far East.

According to the U.S. Forces Japan Web site, U.S. military strength in Japan is about 37,000 service members ashore and 13,000 afloat. The forces are dispersed among 88 facilities around Japan varying in size from major bases to small antenna sites.

U.S. Marine Corps Bases Japan consists of approximately 9,000 marines and civilians, working at two air stations and camps in Okinawa and mainland Japan.

Futenma served as a major base when the U.S. was fighting in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, expanding and developing to accommodate each occasion. Experts confirm Ishiba’s assertion that the Marine Corps provides the leadoff units that land in and secure enemy territory, and Futenma is a linchpin against regional tension.

In 2006, LDP member Fumio Kyuma argued that U.S. Marine Corps in Japan plays a key role in keeping China from making incursions on Taiwan.

He warned that relocating the marines outside of Okinawa would be detrimental to the the prefecture’s security, arguing that Chinese military power would have a greater influence in the region.

“If Taiwan is taken by China, Okinawa won’t have the luxury of making carefree comments,” said Kyuma, who served twice as defense minister.

Indeed, the main island of Okinawa is only 630 km from Taiwan, reachable within an hour by commercial jet. The U.S. military considers Okinawa Island the “keystone of the Pacific,” given its strategic importance.

While precise details about Futenma are not disclosed and often change, about 70 aircraft consisting mainly of helicopters are believed to be stationed there. The base also has an airstrip that measures 2,800 meters long and 46 meters wide, according to the city of Ginowan.

One aircraft often seen on the runway is a gigantic C-5 Galaxy cargo plane, which according to the U.S Air Force “can carry fully equipped combat-ready military units to any point in the world on short notice and then provide field support required to help sustain the fighting force.”

The aircraft can transport 36 standard pallets of supplies and up to 81 troops simultaneously and has been observed carrying marines between Futenma and Iraq.

Ginowan says on its Web site that training at Futenma is highly practical and includes helicopters hovering at low altitude to practice “touch and go” landings.

Transport aircraft and patrol planes from the nearby Kadena air force base, as well as navy F/A-18 Hornet fighters, also conduct flight training in the area.

Futenma helicopters frequently travel between Camp Schwab, Camp Hansen and other training facilities, making the Ginowan facility the marines’ operational center.

If an emergency breaks out in the region, the marines at Futenma are conveniently close to Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture. Assault ships stationed there, including the USS Essex, would steam to Futenma to load troops and helicopters and take them to their destination.

For this reason, Washington remains unyielding on the relocation issue, agreeing in 2006 only to close Futenma and relocate its aircraft operations to Henoko, farther north on Okinawa Island, adjacent to Camp Schwab. There are no alternatives to that road map, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month in Tokyo, pressuring the Hatoyama administration to abandon any hope of moving Futenma outside Okinawa or the country.

Experts say this is because bases in Japan play a vital role in sustaining the American presence in the Pacific, with past operations demonstrating its influence can reach as far as Iraq.

In addition to the advantage of keeping Futenma’s operations in Okinawa, keeping them ear Camp Schwab — where units conduct live-fire training — is also a key component of how the U.S. plans to operate in the future.

Although Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada brought up the old notion of moving Futenma’s operations to Kadena, the U.S. Defense Department has been unwavering in rejecting that proposal.

The U.S. says operating the fixed-wing aircraft already at Kadena and Futenma’s helicopter units at the same place would be technically very difficult and dangerous.

Experts add that Futenma also serves as a key backup to Kadena — the hub of the U.S. Air Force in the Asia-Pacific region — and that integration would hamper U.S. capability if a crisis erupts in the region.

“Operationally, it is unworkable,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said last month on merging Kadena with Futenma.

“You cannot consolidate the air force operations, the Marine Corps operations at that facility and do all the things that we need to do to provide for the defense of Japan,” he said.

Despite such statements, the DPJ’s resistance against Futenma’s operations has been vocal for more than a decade.

The party said in a 2004 statement that the base’s operations can be dispersed to other stations, considering that not very many marines were sent from Futenma to Iraq.

“Measures to halt the operation of the base should be sought in preparation for a return” of the land to Japan, the statement said.

The DPJ also claimed in the 2004 paper that once relocated to overseas locations such as Guam, the marines could be allowed to use Camp Schwab to handle any crises in Japan or the surrounding region.

With the DPJ proposal setting off serious debate between Tokyo and Washington, the opposition LDP has quickly lashed out at Hatoyama and his rickety policies.

“One mistake could leave a scar on bilateral ties between Japan and the U.S.,” LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki said during a Diet session last week, adding, “Japan’s security policies will also be hampered.”

But some military analysts question whether regional security would really suffer if Futenma leaves Okinawa.

“The Marine Corps is designed for initial strikes, such as to create beachheads and secure entry to land” for larger units, said military analyst Tetsuo Maeda, a visiting professor at Okinawa University. Maeda is known as an ardent supporter of the pacifist Constitution.

Maeda said that while such tactics were imperative during the Vietnam and Korean wars, the roles of the U.S. military have changed and battles are being fought differently today.

Given the U.S. capability to quickly deploy forces, Maeda sees no reason marines can’t be dispatched from the U.S. mainland.

“I have high hopes (in general) for the Hatoyama-Obama summit, especially with new administrations taking power in both Japan and the U.S.,” Maeda said.

However, with opinions on Futenma still not fixed even within the Japanese government, concluding an agreement on the issue will be unlikely, he said.

“I feel that some of the issues haven’t been adjusted yet for proper negotiations to take place between the two countries,” he said.