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Futenma to move no earlier than 2019

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will not be closed and relocated farther north on Okinawa until at least 2019, newly filed Japanese construction documents indicate.

Tokyo has estimated reclaiming land for off-shore U.S. military runways will take five years, according to a voluminous construction application formally accepted for review Friday by the Okinawa prefectural government. Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima will take the next six to eight months to decide whether to approve the reclamation request, his office said Friday.

The new timeline brings the Futenma move back into the spotlight after an initial 2014 relocation deadline was scrapped. But it also follows a pattern of delays that has dogged U.S. efforts to realign military forces in the region. Earlier this month, the head of U.S. Pacific Command said the effort to reduce the large military presence here by relocating about 9,000 Marines off Okinawa will take until 2026 — more than a decade longer than originally planned.

Tokyo took its latest step toward the Futenma move last week when it delivered the reclamation request to a prefecture office in Nago near the relocation site. Under Japanese law, the prefecture must OK reclamation work — even by the central government — before it can proceed.

The Ministry of Defense is asking Okinawa’s permission to reclaim about 395 acres of land to build V-shaped runways off the tip of the Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab, a quiet coastal area that is less populated than densely developed Ginowan city around Futenma. The move is designed to reduce noise and fears over air accidents such as the 2004 crash of a Marine helicopter into a local college campus.

Once completed, newly deployed Marine Corps Osprey aircraft would be relocated there. A 12-aircraft squadron of the hybrid tilt-rotor Ospreys was deployed to Okinawa last fall, and another squadron is slated to arrive this year.

The five-year reclamation project at Oura Bay will require about 4.7 billion gallons of soil, which the ministry plans to buy from a contractor, according to the Okinawa Defense Bureau.

A similar project headed by the Japanese government at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni near Hiroshima reclaimed land for a new off-shore U.S. military runway that began operation in 2010. That project — now the largest heavy-lift runway in the region — hit numerous delays and took 13 years to complete.

Still, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first to make good on Japan’s pledge to the U.S. to request the controversial runway reclamation work following years of political friction and unsuccessful efforts by his predecessors.

It remains unclear whether Nakaima will approve the reclamation work. For years, the governor has lobbied for moving Futenma operations off Okinawa but has stopped short of saying outright that he will reject the request.

Nakaima and many Okinawans have strongly opposed keeping the Marine Corps air operations on the island and building a new U.S. air station at Henoko, despite the U.S.-Japan agreement.

The island is now home to the majority of military forces stationed in Japan and various Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Army facilities, including one of the largest air bases in the world. Local discontent over air traffic noise and crime by servicemembers has festered on the island for generations.

tritten.travis@stripes.com

sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com

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