Early last month, Japan’s central government made a surprise announcement that it would suspend for one month from August 10to September 9 the construction of the controversial U.S. Marine Corps air base in Henoko, Okinawa. Building this landfill facility on the edge of Camp Schwab on Oura Bay has been the precondition for closing down the Futenma Air Base, which is dangerously located in a densely populated area. Back in 1996, the U.S. government had promised to return Futenma as soon as a replacement facility was completed on Okinawa.
After the August 4 announcement, senior officials in the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met several times with Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and his representatives to discuss the base issue. Rather than exploring common ground, however, the central government and Onaga dug in their heels and reiterated their respective positions. The Abe government argued that completing the Henoko base is the only way to close Futenma without weakening deterrence. Onaga stayed true to his electoral mandate by insisting that the Henoko plan be abandoned and the Futenma functions be transferred outside of Okinawa.
In the November 2014 Okinawa gubernatorial election, Onaga had convincingly defeated incumbent Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who had angered Okinawan voters by accepting in December 2013 the central government’s landfill application to build the base at Henoko. An overwhelming majority of Okinawa residents oppose the plan, and citizen groups have mobilized daily protests at Henoko. Although the U.S. military presence may contribute to Japan’s national security as a whole, 74 percent of the bases used exclusively by the U.S. military are still located in Okinawa, one of Japan’s smallest prefectures. Okinawans increasingly feel that the persistence of this unfair burden reflects Japanese social discrimination against Okinawans, which has a long history going back to when Japan overpowered the Ryukyu Kingdom and formally incorporated Okinawa as a prefecture in 1879.
After the security bills pass the National Diet in mid-September, Abe intends to resume the construction at Henoko, but this move will backfire. Onaga is likely to respond by retracting his predecessor’s approval of the landfill application, and Okinawa and the Abe government will be locked in a bitter court battle. Local Okinawa authorities will use a variety of administrative actions to slow construction. Public opposition to the Henoko air base will intensify and could make Okinawans less willing to host more important U.S. military assets, such as Kadena Air Force Base, the largest U.S. air base in the Asia-Pacific. Any military accident near Futenma that injures residents would have a devastating impact on the U.S.-Japan alliance. In 2004, a Marine helicopter crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University. Thankfully, that crash did not cause any casualties; but we may not be so fortunate next time.
U.S. and Japanese officials insist that building the V-shaped landfill air base at Henoko is necessary to meet the critical operational requirements of the U.S. Marine Corps and to maintain deterrence. We disagree. There is indeed another option. Washington and Tokyo should work out a compromise solution that builds on the Spring 1996 interim report of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO), which was established by the U.S. and Japan to examine ways to reduce the burden on Okinawa. The SACO interim report identified the construction of a heliport inside Camp Schwab as one of the three options to be seriously considered. The heliport option was discarded, and Tokyo and Washington eventually settled on the current landfill air base option in 2006.
Reviving the heliport option now makes sense for the following reasons. First, the U.S. Marine Corps has been evolving from its previous garrison-type presence in Okinawa to a more expeditionary orientation. In addition to a shift of several thousand troops from Okinawa to Guam and Hawaii, the Marines will deploy units to Darwin, Australia on a rotational basis. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated in October 2013, over half of the training involving Marine MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft now takes place outside of Okinawa.
Second, the introduction of two dozen MV-22s as the Marines’ primary transport aircraft in Japan makes it much less essential to have Marine aircraft stationed near the ground units in Okinawa. Whereas as the CH-46E helicopters, the previous transport aircraft, have an assault range of about 152 miles and a speed of 167 miles per hour (mph), the MV-22 Ospreys have a range of 1,011 miles and a cruising speed of 277 mph. Rather than having the Ospreys home-based on Okinawa, they could be placed on a base in one of the main Japanese islands like Kyushu, and they could fly to the heliport in Camp Schwab and pick up ground forces for training exercises. Moreover, Marine rotary-wing aircraft are often used for flight training without ground forces, so all of these aircraft certainly do not have to be located at an air facility in Okinawa near ground troops.
Third, compared to the planned landfill air base at Henoko, building a heliport inside Camp Schwab would be much quicker. According to current estimates, completion of the Henoko base will take at least until 2022. With the local opposition to the base, construction is likely to take much longer. The longer that Futenma remains in operation, the greater the risk of a tragic accident. Moreover, a heliport inside Camp Schwab avoids the negative environmental consequences of the landfill project.
And there do exist scarcely used airfields on one of the main Japanese islands, which could be renovated quickly to serve as the home base for the Marine Corps Ospreys. With the Japanese Self-Defense Forces acquiring Ospreys as well, this renovated facility could promote alliance cooperation by becoming a U.S.-Japan joint use base.
Finally, the Abe government’s new security legislation and the revised U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines will make the bilateral alliance more seamless in responding to a myriad of security challenges. As Japan beefs up its ability to defend its remote islands and operational collaboration between U.S. and Japanese forces progresses, a large concentration of U.S. Marine personnel with a full-fledged air base on Okinawa is not essential for deterrence. To be sure, the possibility of involving U.S. Marine units as well as the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will strengthen deterrence vis-à-vis possible Chinese aggression against the Senkaku Islands(known as the Diaoyutai in China). But a landfill base at Henoko is not necessary for deterrence to work.
For example, the U.S. could signal its defense commitment by having the option of deploying a Marine task force unit to an outer Okinawa island with an air base that is closer to the Senkaku rather than the main island of Okinawa. Possible candidates might include Miyako Island and Shimoji Island. Japanese Self-Defense Forces and Marine units could engage in joint training to access both of these outer islands, and equipment could be prepositioned there to facilitate a rapid response during a crisis. Osprey aircraft based on one of the main Japanese islands could fly quickly to the heliport in Camp Schwab to pick up ground forces and then deploy to one of the outer Okinawan islands closer to the Senkakus. This succession of steps would allow the United States with Japan to send calibrated signals to China to prevent a military or paramilitary seizure of the Senkaku Islands.
U.S. defense planners have also argued the Henoko landfill base is necessary as a possible staging area during a military conflict. To address this possibility, however, one option would be to maintain Futenma as a reserve facility for the time being while terminating the aircraft operations there. In the meantime, a second runway at Naha Airport would be constructed, and this civilian facility could be used during a military contingency. If U.S. defense planners are indeed concerned about a high-intensity conflict in the region, then a more effective and efficient alternative to the Henoko base would be to develop co-basing access to Japanese Self-Defense Force bases on the main islands and to pre-position Marine Corps combat equipment. This would enable rapid deployment of U.S. Marine Corps units from the U.S. continent.
Although some in Okinawa might protest even the construction of a heliport inside Camp Schwab, this option should be far less onerous than the coastal V-shaped air base and certainly far better than keeping Futenma open as is. Moreover, given the planned drawdown of the Marine presence on Okinawa and the increase in Marines training outside of Okinawa, use of this Camp Schwab heliport should be much less intensive than the current use of Futenma. By avoiding the economically and politically costly landfill base project at Henoko, this alternative proposal should be a win for Okinawa, a win for Japan, and a win for the United States. Ironically, despite Abe’s reputation for being overbearing with Okinawa, his efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japanese defense capabilities will make it possible to overcome the Futenma stalemate.
Akikazu Hashimoto is project professor at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo; and Mike Mochizuki holds the Japan-U.S. Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur at George Washington University. This article is based on their new book published in Japanese, The Okinawa Solution.