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Marine presence on Okinawa slashed 50% by agreement

Date Posted: 2005-11-04

Seven thousand Marines will move south to US territory, aircraft will shift to the north and to the mainland, and bases will shuffle as part of a new deal the US and Japanese governments say will reduce the military burdens on Okinawa.

The decisions are part of a troop realignment plan hammered out over the past few months, and agreed upon last weekend during meetings in Washington. Reaction has been swift, and few are happy with the agreement.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters elements will move to Guam over the next six years, if the pact is actually signed. The personnel shifts will also include administration and logistical elements of the 3rd Marine Division, Marine Air Wing and the Force Service Command Group.

The Marines’ move was hailed as a positive development by Okinawans, who say the deal didn’t go far enough. Anti-military activists, which range from the Okinawa governor down to individuals in the street, want all U.S. forces removed from the island. Still, some politicians and business leaders are warning of dire economic consequences if the troops are actually pulled out.

Richard Lawless, the U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Asia, called the deal “a long road, but a necessary one.” He said the U.S. agreed to Tokyo’s demands because it allows Futenma to relocate in a “comprehensive, capable and executable way.”

Tohru Odo, an Okinawa Prefecture Assembly member, was in Tokyo the week before the agreement, warning officials to be cautious. He told national leaders the opposition to American troops on Okinawa is somewhat overstated, and that the rank and file Okinawan will suffer if and when troops are withdrawn. He cited statistics that the bases contribute more than $2 billion annually to the local economy.

An American professor teaching in Osaka has lashed out at the Marines withdrawal action as being ‘unwise’ in light of world tensions. Associate professor Robert Eldridge of Osaka University says removing the headquarters and key support elements from Okinawa, while leaving the combat troops, is tanamount to disaster. He predicted “dramatic disruptions in command and control” as well as an inability to react quickly to regional tensions. He called the decisions political.

Aside from the Okinawa decision, Eldridge had similar fears for the plan to move I Corps headquarters from the United States to Japan, while leaving its troops stateside. He said it would hamper and restrict abilities to react to emergencies, and to control the troops.

A total of 14,000 Marines are in Japan, with the bulk of that number on Okinawa. Roughly 55,000 personnel from all services are in Japan. Okinawa, which has one percent of Japan’s land mass, currently hosts 75% of the military in Japan.

The controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station would move to Camp Schwab as part of the realignment, but nobody in Okinawa politics views that as a good thing. Governor Keiichi Inamine has blasted the decision and declared it impossible.

The new airfield will begin construction soon, with a completion date estimated at late 2011. The airbase element will be constructed at Camp Schwab, with half the 1,800 meter long runway on the existing base, while the other half is constructed over waters in the adjacent Oura Wan Bay. The Japanese government will pick up the tab for the move.

The Futenma battle has raged for nine years. A 1996 agreement was supposed to have been quickly implemented, but the replacement airfield at Henoko, a proposed joint civilian-military airport, was mired in political, economic and environmental mud almost from the beginning. Test drilling began last year for the airport’s 2,500 meter runway stretching into Henoko Bay, but protesters both on land and in boats hampered the process. It is termed “dead” by most observers.
Still unclear from official reports, but widely reported among media and unidentified government officials, are plans to close several large U.S. facilities in central and southern Okinawa. The bases and their missions would be shifted to the northern one-third of the island.

Naha Military Port on the capital city’s southside, Camp Kinser in Urasoe City, Camp Foster in Ginowan City, and Camp Lester in Chatan are all reportedly earmarked for closure under the plan. Unnamed officials say those bases will move to the northern areas of the island, close the Camps Hansen, Courtney and Schwab and the troops they principally support.

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