While technology and delivery methods continue to evolve, military air bases remain the most crucial platforms for the projection of air power.
Yet they are expensive to build, operate and maintain. Because of their strategic importance and high costs, they ought to be designed and built to provide the most efficient and flexible use for the widest variety of air platforms. Moreover, these bases should be designed to support joint strategic needs rather than special purpose, service specific uses.
The capability to support joint service, allied and coalition operations is vital: All allied or coalition aircraft should have the ability to use any air base at any time. Because Northeast Asia has become a contested environment due to the rise of China as an aspiring regional hegemon, and because air bases are alluring targets vulnerable to enemy attack (by missiles or other means), any such base in this region that is not multicapable and adaptive to support distributed air operations will be obsolete.
That is the fundamental problem with the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF), first announced 25 years ago on Dec. 2, 1996. The FRF was not designed and is not being constructed to meet the regional strategic needs of the emerging great-power competition. In other words, it will be obsolete before construction is even finished.
The FRF design was so politically constrained to mitigate local opposition to its construction that those design constraints will severely limit its operational use and flexibility to meet regional power projection needs. Ironically, those self-imposed constraints on its design have done little to reduce local opposition.
The Special Action Committee on Okinawa, established in November 1995 following the rape of an Okinawan school girl, promoted a timeline to return MCAS Futenma “within the next five to seven years” in an effort to ease the base burdens there. Yet, 25 years later, this base still hasn’t been returned and the plan for its replacement has created an entirely new controversy, which has caused greater political damage to the U.S.-Japan alliance than any other issue over the past two decades. Why did this happen?
The controversy that arose over MCAS Futenma is but a symptom of much greater problems in the paradigm of host-nation basing on Okinawa. Those problems are caused by many decades of mutual mistrust and injustices, both real and perceived, related to the disproportionate basing of U.S. military forces on Okinawa vis-a-vis mainland Japan.
The FRF is the latest centerpiece of an almost half-century-long series of efforts bilaterally planned and orchestrated by the governments of Japan and the United States to reduce that burden. Those plans have been a persistent feature of unimaginative and myopic attempts to solve the enduring “Okinawa Problem” since Okinawa’s reversion in 1972. They have consistently been, at best, only half-realized, never fully delivering what was promised.
Furthermore, those plans never addressed the fundamentally flawed paradigm of exclusive-use basing, which fosters gross inefficiency in land use and often results in unused land being held as ransom for commitments many years into the future. The FRF, a symptom of much larger problems, is misunderstood as the central problem itself. The outsized controversy over the FRF has resulted in a solution that does not solve those problems, nor will it result in a capability proportional to its cost.
The FRF is a case study in applying conventional solutions that do not adequately address the problems they were intended to solve. Nor does it contribute to an enhanced capability commensurate with the need to deter and counteract current and future strategic threats.
The specialized design of FRF to accommodate only those units currently hosted at MCAS Futenma assumes that Marine aviation assets deployed there today will be the same types of assets deployed decades from now. An alternative solution more suitable for the current strategic environment would be dispersal of these aviation units to other, more capable joint use air bases. By terminating the troubled FRF project, the Japanese government could reinvest the remaining funds to enhance the capability of those joint use air bases with a greater return on investment. This alternative would result in a more survivable and lethal regional military capability delivered quickly rather than waiting another decade or longer for much less.
Also, in common with every other U.S. base in Okinawa (but significantly not the mainland), the FRF plan does not accommodate shared use with Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) air or naval units. Failure to implement a joint-use basing strategy with JSDF units is a critical flaw in Okinawa’s basing paradigm. Shared basing with host nation forces promotes greater operational integration, interoperability and efficiency of use, which in turn provides greater opportunities to consolidate base facilities. It also improves local perceptions of U.S. forces because they live, work and train together with Japanese forces. Exclusive use of forward deployed bases in an advanced allied democracy, such as Japan, is a Cold War paradigm whose effectiveness has long since passed.
Because its short runways will severely limit the types of aircraft that can use the base, the FRF will not replace the full range of capabilities currently provided by MCAS Futenma. The planned port area has the potential to provide an important sea-air logistics capability, but even it is limited by design so that it may not be able to support large surface vessels.
Furthermore, not including the design for a seadrome with a seaplane ramp to support potential operations of Maritime Self-Defense Force US-2 seaplanes for search and rescue was a gross oversight, further limiting the potential for joint use. Reduced capability at an exorbitant cost will be the result.
The enormous political and financial capital required to construct this new air facility is greatly out of proportion to the operational utility it will provide. Nor will its completion resolve the core issues pertaining to the long-standing Okinawa Problem. From a fiscal, political, strategic and operational perspective, this project will ultimately be judged an expensive failure.
Shawn D. Harding is a former program manager in the Defense Policy Review Initiative with more than 25 years’ experience supporting and managing U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation programs. He is currently a Master of International Public Policy candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies focusing on security, strategy and statecraft in the Asia-Pacific region.
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