YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The U.S. is adding more than 1,100 personnel and spending $1 billion on new C-130J aircraft and support facilities at Yokota Air Base as part of the Pacific pivot.
The servicemembers and their families will arrive at the base over the next few years along with a Special Operations Squadron bringing 10 CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, said Col. Douglas C. DeLaMater, 374th Airlift Wing commander.
Already home to 11,500 personnel, the base — which houses U.S. Forces Japan and the 5th Air Force — will see a 10 percent population boost with the new units’ arrival, DeLaMater said in an interview in late December.
The move — along with replacement of the 14 C-130 cargo planes flown by the 374th — is part of an effort to deepen U.S. military and diplomatic ties to Asia, where a rising China is causing angst among its neighbors.
“The 374th and Team Yokota are critical to the Pacific rebalance in a lot of ways,” DeLaMater said. “To a large degree, you can see the impact here at Yokota.”
Base personnel see evidence of the rebalance in the amount of cargo they move, the number of operational missions they fly, and the resources being devoted to improving capacity at Yokota, DeLaMater said.
Last year, Yokota-based aircraft flew nearly 7,000 hours and moved more than 5,000 passengers and 4.3 million pounds of cargo. Air mobility missions — which encompass personnel and cargo movement, air drop and participation in exercises — doubled from 1,500 hours in 2012 to 3,000 hours last year, according to data provided by Yokota’s public affairs office.
The 374th, the Air Force’s only forward-deployed airlift wing in the Pacific, engages across the region. On any given day, cargo aircraft from Yokota might be delivering supplies to Thailand or Korea, while others could be dropping off personnel in New Zealand and Australia.
Yokota’s planes helped move relief supplies to Nepal after last year’s devastating earthquake, and supported the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan battered the archipelago’s midsection in 2013. Last month, the C-130s flew out of Guam to provide aid to isolated Micronesia communities as part of the annual Operation Christmas Drop.
“This wing in particular can deliver hope and faith in humanity where it is needed, any time anywhere,” DeLaMater said.
The focus on humanitarian aid motivates airmen, but their skills are honed over hours of training for combat and the projection of airpower, he said.
Former Air Force officer Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Honolulu, said airlift is critical to the projection of power and deployment of forces in the Pacific.
“You can send a carrier, but that takes you a week, whereas with airlift you can get there within hours and put people on the ground,” he said. “Certainly for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief it is critical to get supplies in.”
New construction at Yokota costing $253 million will upgrade facilities to support the new aircraft and units. However, the Pacific pivot — which reflects Washington’s view of the region as its highest long-term priority — is as much a mindset change as it is a matter of spending, personnel and equipment, DeLaMater said.
For the 374th, that means trying to partner with other militaries in the region whenever possible. Some equipment upgrades are being done with that in mind, he said. Hoists were recently installed in the wing’s four UH-1 helicopters, allowing them to rescue people from places where aircraft can’t land. The gear was added to make the helicopters interoperable with Japanese military helicopters, DeLaMater said.
Three C-12J aircraft at Yokota, primarily used as passenger planes, also received recent upgrades. The aircraft, which can transport small cargo loads and sensitive items, got new “aerobeds” that allow for the evacuation of seriously injured patients.
The wing’s 14 Hercules cargo planes are getting an even more significant upgrade. Aging C-130H models will be replaced with the latest C-130Js between September and mid-2018. The aircraft have increased cargo capacity, power and range as well as automated systems that allow them to fly with two fewer crewmembers. The upgrade won’t affect the base population, despite the reduction in aircrew, because there will be more maintainers working on the new aircraft. Yokota’s Special Operations Squadron will add about 1,100 personnel to the base, DeLaMater said.
The first three Air Force Ospreys will start flying out of Yokota next year, and 10 will be at the base by 2021, DeLaMater said.
The last major move to Yokota was in 2012 when a new Japan Air Defense Command opened along with facilities for 800 Japanese airmen. The Special Operations Squadron at Yokota will be part of the 353rd Special Operations Group at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, officials said.
“Initially, the Ospreys will integrate into areas we are in now, but the long-term plan is to build new facilities on the east side of the flightline, including hangars and a headquarters,” DeLaMater said.
Some of the facilities that will initially be shared by members of the 374th and Osprey personnel will be upgraded, he added.
“Those (upgraded) facilities will still be here when the new ones are built on east side, and they will be used by the C-130 folks,” he said.
Meanwhile, Yokota has tripled its cargo-handling capacity. The base, home to the 515th Air Mobility Operations Group and the 730th Air Mobility Squadron, is a regular stop-off for large military jets such as C-17s, C-5s and KC-10s as well as contractor cargo planes, such as 747s, carrying military cargo.
Large aircraft — including planes that transport more than 6,000 personnel to and from Japan each month — that pass through Yokota on their way to and from spots across the Pacific are handled and maintained by airmen and civilians at the base, DeLaMater said.
The mindset change that has accompanied the rebalance is manifesting itself in the relationships that Yokota airmen are building with partner nations in the region, he said.
For example, the 374th participated in November’s Vigilant Ace exercise — the largest peacetime Air Force deployment from Japan to Korea — along with forces from Misawa and Kadena air bases. Last month, Australia’s Defence Force joined Christmas drop operations in Micronesia for the first time.
“In the past we looked at Christmas drops as a U.S. mission, but we are looking at this region differently now,” DeLaMater said. “We are going to see more of that kind of thing. You might see the Philippines in Operation Christmas Drops next year.”
Yokota is trying to expand its relationships with Japanese forces such as Japan Ground Self-Defense Force units based nearby at Tachikawa.
“Wherever there is an opportunity for us to be interoperable with the Japanese we are going to pursue those things,” DeLaMater said.
However, he said Japanese proposals to allow commercial passenger jets to share the Yokota flightline haven’t gained traction.
“The idea of Yokota as a dual-use airport isn’t in the best interest of anyone,” he said. “It is not compatible with our responsibility for the defense of Japan.”
Yokota’s central location, which gives U.S. officials access to their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo, makes the base an important asset, Cossa, the Pacific Forum president, said. “You want something close to major authorities so that you can interact,” he said.
Enhanced cooperation will only be fueled by changes to Japan’s defense guidelines, DeLaMater said of moves to give Japanese forces more freedom to support allies such as the U.S. in a crisis.
“We’re pleased to see the Japanese are as interested in maintaining the alliance as we are in the U.S.,” he said. “The Japanese government and the U.S. understand the importance of Yokota as a team and installation and it is investing significant resources to maintain the infrastructure here but also to support the larger mission of Yokota as the Westpac mobility hub.”