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Inamine: Build interim airfield immediately

Date Posted: 2006-05-13

Okinawa’s governor has tossed a new bone to the Japanese government as it seeks support for the new bases realignment agreement between the U.S. and Japan.

Keiichi Inamine is calling for immediate construction of a temporary airfield at Camp Schwab to support Marine Corps helicopter operations. The governor is concerned about flight safety at the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan, and says safety cannot wait until the Futenma Replacement Facility is constructed in 2014.

The governor’s demand comes a week after the U.S. and Japan signed an agreement to radically realign U.S. forces in Japan, including moving 8,000 Marines off Okinawa to Guam. Inamine’s proposal seemingly conflicts with his adamant stance that no new airfield be constructed on Okinawa. He denies that, saying he’s trying “to be flexible” in dealing with the May bilateral accord signed in Washington.

Inamine wants the two governments to construct an airfield in Camp Schwab capable of supporting 56 helicopters now based at Futenma. The governor wants a set of barracks torn down to make room for the helipad. He remains opposed to construction of any runways that require land reclamation into the nearby bay.

Inamine met over the weekend with the Defense Facilities Administration Agency director, telling him it’s urgent that Futenma be closed quickly. Iwao Kitahara was in Okinawa to meet with mayors of cities and towns surrounding U.S. bases to explain the government decisions encompassed by the new Japan-U.S. agreement. Inamine did not spell out his plan for the interim heliport, instead choosing a separate press conference to unveil his idea. He focused on the August 2004 helicopter crash outside Futenma, on the campus of Okinawa International University, saying “It’s necessary to take an emergency measure.”

At the same time, he reiterated that “My proposal is by no means an agreement to accept a new airfield at Camp Schwab. As a temporary airfield, it’s just that.” The governor, who is in Tokyo today and tomorrow, says he’ll present his idea formally to central government officials. He’s to meet with the Defense Chief and cabinet ministers, and indicated he’d like to talk directly to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Kitahara, for his part, explained to mayors of Ginwan City and Kadena town that “the dangers at Futenma will be eliminated by relocating it to the Futenma Replacement Facility with its two V-shaped runways.” Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha demanded the Futenma facility be closed immediately, telling the defense chief “operation of helicopters at the air station should be stopped now by moving the helicopter units off Okinawa.”

The defense chief found himself confronted by protesters during his Okinawa visit. Placards and chants of “Close Futenma Now”, “Don’t fly helicopters here anymore” and “Listen to the voices of the people” were in evidence as he arrived at the Ginowan City Hall.

The Deputy Defense Undersecretary for the U.S., Richard Lawless, downplayed the necessity of a temporary heliport at Camp Schwab. He told reporters American helicopters operate with strict safety standards, and promised those standards will always be in effect. He said the 2014 completion date for the new Camp Schwab facility is adequate, and said the Okinawa citizens would come to appreciate the benefits of the replacement airfield to the community. Inamine says “unless it (the realignment) gains understanding from the local governments, including the prefecture, it will not be effective.”

Inamine conceded that the new agreement “shows a positive direction toward reducing Okianwa’s base hosting burdens”.

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