Sunday, May 15, 2011

13/05 Futenma plan more uncertain / U.S. senators' proposal throws cloud over base's move to Henoko

Hajime Furukawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

A proposal by members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to merge the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station with Kadena Air Force Base, both in Okinawa Prefecture, has made the established plan for Futenma's relocation increasingly uncertain.

Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the powerful military affairs committee, and two other senior members proposed examining the feasibility of moving Futenma to Kadena, instead of building a replacement facility in the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture.

Levin and committee member James Webb, D-Va., visited Okinawa Prefecture, Tokyo and Guam in late April. During their trip, they met with Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and others.

They devised the proposal because after meeting the people involved, they believed it would be difficult to realize the construction of a replacement facility for Futenma in Nago, according to observers.

The Japanese government has and is expected to continue to maintain its position that the plan to construct a replacement facility in Henoko is the only option agreed upon between Japan and the United States.

The government is disconcerted by the senators' proposal, which it believes is "impractical," according to a Foreign Ministry senior official.

The idea of integrating with Kadena surfaced several times in past Japan-U.S. discussions on the Futenma issue, but was always dropped because of its lack of practicality.

The plan's feasibility was studied for the final report of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) in 1996, for the U.S.-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation in 2006 and for the review of the road map by the administration of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama last year.

Both the U.S. Marine Corps, whose presence in Okinawa mainly consists of helicopter squadrons, and the U.S. Air Force, which primarily uses jet fighters and other airplanes in the prefecture, were unenthusiastic about the idea because there was a great risk of air traffic and operational troubles.

Local governments--including Kadenacho, where Kadena Air Base is located-- also have strongly opposed the idea due to the anticipated increase in noise. The base includes land in three localities: Kadenacho, Chatancho and Okinawa city.

The Japanese and U.S. governments in May last year agreed again to relocate Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago.

"The proposal by Levin and others contradicts the current position of the U.S. government," a Japanese government official said.

Yet, constructing the Futenma replacement facility in Henoko by 2014 as stipulated in the roadmap is itself facing a difficult road to realization.

Because the Senate Armed Services Committee has substantial influence over the nation's defense budget, the situation regarding Futenma's relocation is increasingly opaque.

(May. 13, 2011)

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