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Politics stirring the Futenma helicopter relocation debate

Date Posted: 2005-06-24

Kadena town residents are more adamant than ever they do not want Futenma’s helicopters in their backyard.

The Japanese government, while standing fast with talk of the longterm Henoko relocation airport for Futenma’s military aircraft and helicopters, is talking more strongly about shifting the 50 rotary wing aircraft to Kadena. The government knows there’s opposition to the new airport in Nago, if it is to be built. They know too the Okinawa Prefecture demands that any occupancy of a new airport by Americans be limited to 15 years.

Everything is in the air now as Japanese and American military leaders struggle with a total realignment plan for U.S. forces in the country. The SACO plan now calls for fixed wing aircraft at Futenma, mostly C-130 refueler aircraft, to move to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station. The trouble is, local leaders there don’t want the additional aircraft.

Kadena, the military’s largest airbase anywhere in the world, on the surface seems an easy solution to the problem. Kadena doesn’t agree, citing increased noise pollution and a likelihood of more danger to residents. The concept now is to construct an additional airfield on the fringe of Kadena’s northside using a 27 square kilometer piece of land now being used as an ammunition storage facility.

The idea of using Kadena isn’t new. It was first proposed nearly 10 years ago, then rejected by the Air Force. Kadena is home to both F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, and military brass express concerns that adding more than four dozen large helicopters to the air and ground traffic patterns would be of concern. And then there’s the local opposition.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Japan’s Defense Chief, Yoshinori Ono, have talked in recent weeks about cutting troop levels on Okinawa, with Futenma and Kadena being specific conversation topics. They’ve kicked about a couple other ideas, including building a helicopter base at the existing Camp Schwab in the north, where the choppers are largely used, or making the new airfield on Ikei Island east of Okinawa’s main island.

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