Japan Behind the News >> The Futenma Base Relocation Controversy: Why North Korea’s Predicted Collapse Makes Kadena the Solution

Cultural News, 2009 December Issue

By Motoaki Kamiura, Military Analyst

Translated by Alan Gleason

Motoaki Kamiura

Motoaki Kamiura

And indeed, different members of the Hatoyama Cabinet are leaning in different directions as they desperately seek a solution. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa supports moving the Futenma facilities to a more isolated coastal location at the Marines’ Camp Schwab; this was the solution that the Japanese and American governments agreed upon in a 2006 protocol.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, on the other hand, has proposed merging Futenma’s operations into the island’s largest U.S. air base, Kadena. And Prime Minister Hatoyama himself has said he wants to study moving them out of Okinawa altogether, or even out of Japan.

Meanwhile, on recent visits to Japan, U.S. President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both pressed the Japanese government to abide by the 2006 Camp Schwab plan. Some pundits have even taken to making dire warnings that the U.S.-Japan alliance could break down over the issue.

If you look past the political posturing and diplomatic haggling, however, the only realistic option available to the two sides is, in my view, to integrate Futenma with Kadena.

The reason for this can be found in the primary mission of the U.S. Marines in Okinawa. They are deployed there to support U.S. forces in South Korea in the event of an invasion from the North. From Okinawa, the Marines could be moved very quickly into the Korean Peninsula.

In other words, the Marines in Okinawa serve as a forward deployment force that would enter Korea first while Army and Navy personnel from the U.S. mainland bring up the rear.

If, however, the present North Korean regime collapses as predicted, U.S. forces will withdraw from the South and the Marines will no longer be needed in Okinawa. As for China, the Marines are not equipped to make a frontal attack on so large a country. That would be the job of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.

Today, the chances of North Korea attacking the South are close to zero, which makes the construction of a big, brand-new Marine Corps base in Okinawa all but moot, and the merger of Futenma into Kadena highly plausible.

Adjacent to Kadena Air Base is the vast Kadena Ammunition Storage Area, which covers an area 1.3 times as large as the base itself. But as U.S. forces rely increasingly on precision-guided munitions, the amount of ammunition stored at Kadena has dropped precipitously. That opens up more than enough land on which to build a runway for the Marine Corps helicopters now flying out of Futenma.

The major objection raised by the U.S. side to the use of Kadena for this purpose is that the two existing Kadena runways would have to be shared by Air Force fighters and Marine helicopters. Building a new helicopter facility on an unused section of the Ammunition Storage Area should remove this objection.

Motoaki Kamiura is a Tokyo-based military analyst. He appears frequently on national television programs.

Alan Gleason is an editor, writer, and Japanese-English translator. He lives in Tokyo.

Japan’s mass media has portrayed the fledgling Hatoyama administration as finding itself stuck on the horns of a dilemma over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from its present location in a populated area of Okinawa.