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Governments disagree where to build new military airfield

Date Posted: 2005-09-29

Japan and the United States agree they must build a new military airport to replace the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station.

The trouble is, each government has its own idea about how to best go about making the new facility a reality. Both have plans that would slash the construction time for a new airport from nearly a dozen years down to a manageable five years. As negotiations continue with Washington and Tokyo, the original plans for a massive airfield project off the coast of Henoko have undergone definitive change. The long approved design was for a 2,500-meter-long civilian-military use runway that would have extended into the waters, through reefs, off Henoko, near Nago.

That’s changed, and now defense planners are calling for a 1,500-meter military airfield only. It would, officials say, be sufficient to absorb the aviation mission now assigned to Futenma, situated in the heart of heavily populated Ginowan in central Okinawa.

Disagreement comes on where to construct the new airport. Japanese Defense officials want to build the airstrip within the confines of the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab in northeastern Okinawa. The U.S. military wants to see it built in the Henoko area, as originally designed.

The two sides continue negotiations as a part of an multi-faceted troops and facilities realignment within Japan. Even as they reach agreement, though, there’s no certainly local and prefecture officials will buy into the plans. Local opposition sprouted soon after the 1999 plan was announced to build a joint use airport at Henoko.

Environmentalists lobbied, then protested it was dangerous to the fragile marine ecosystem, including coral. They also found dudongs, lumbering sea mammals in the manatee family, in the area identified for the new airport.

There have been rallies and protests against the project for economic and political reasons too, slowing research and development work. Numerous demonstrations, including in boats in the bay, have hampered survey work.

The U.S. still thinks having the airstrip in the shallow waters off Henoko, amidst the reefs, is the most sound idea. Japanese leaders think a fully land-based airport on the military’s existing Camp Schwab, makes more sense.

Most officials say the original Henoko plan is all but dead, thwarted by the aligned opposition groups. An American Defense Department official speaking candidly said “I personally don’t think that facility will ever be constructed. In fact,” he added, “I think many people suspect the Japanese government was never serious about Henoko.” Some express the same concerns about the shorter, military only airfield, fearing surrounding towns and villages will stand firm about reducing dangerous military operations near their citizens. Both governments reject that premise.

A third option floated in recent months by various Okinawa politicians, but spearheaded by newly elected Independent Representative Mikio Shimoji, is to move Futenma’s helicopter operations to already crowded Kadena Air Base.

Mayors and community leaders of surrounding Kadena Town, Okinawa City and Chatan are vehemently opposed. Noise pollution, already a major issue with area citizens, and potential dangers of helicopters, jet fighters and heavy commercial passenger and military cargo flight operations mixing it up in the same airspace is a concern.

Japan and the United States say they hope to have some plans developed and announced by late October. Those talks encompass far more than Futenma, from which an ill fated heavy lift Sea Stallion helicopter was based and launched before crashing last August onto Okinawa International University.

There are also issues on the fate of other military bases and where to situate U.S. aviation assets. Noise is a key complaint at Atsugi Naval Air Station, while increases in troop strength are a factor considered in a plan to move the American I Corps from Fort Lewis, Washington to Camp Zama, near Tokyo. American officials want the war fighting headquarters more closely situated to its combat forces in the Pacific in order to promote quick reaction response.

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