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Moving Okinawa Marines could take 13 more years, top commander says

Marines with the III Marine Expeditionary Force maneuver amphibious assault vehicles through the water in formation March 5, 2013, at Camp Schwab on Okinawa, where the Futenma air station is slated to be moved.

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — After numerous delays already, the long-planned drawdown of Marines on Okinawa could take another 13 years to complete, according to the head of U.S. Pacific Command.

About 5,000 Marines and their dependents migth be redeployed to Guam by 2020 and thousands more could be moved to Hawaii by 2026, based on “current planning estimates,” Adm. Samuel Locklear told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee during testimony last week.

Locklear said Congress should work to find more funding so the Marine Corps’ pivot and the overall realignment of forces in the Pacific can be done sooner, according to a transcript of his remarks.

The U.S. and Japan originally agreed in 1996 to cut the Marine Corps presence on the island in half following the gang-rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by servicemembers and decades of discontent over the large number of U.S. military bases. But little progress has been realized because many Okinawans object to the construction of a new Marine air station as part of the deal, and some in Congress have become concerned over the massive project’s planning and cost.

The U.S. and Japan announced last year that a 2014 deadline for the Marine move was impossible to meet. But the two allies reconfirmed an earlier pact to move about 9,000 Okinawa Marines to Guam and Hawaii, close Futenma and replace it with a new air station farther north on Okinawa, return military land to Okinawans and relocate a carrier air wing on mainland Japan.

Locklear called the effort a “key transformational goal of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Environmental studies are under way on Guam to determine the sites of housing and live-fire training ranges for the Marines, which are necessary before any move from Okinawa can begin. On Friday, the Joint Guam Program Office, which heads the military buildup on the territory, released public comments collected during the study showing residents remain concerned about the training range location and how it might affect historic lands.

The military is gearing up to start an environmental impact statement on Hawaii to prepare for the move, Locklear said. Such environmental work usually takes several years.

The Marine redeployment is just the most recent component to hit new delays in the new U.S. military shift to the Pacific.

U.S. Forces Japan confirmed in January that backlogged construction has caused a three-year delay in the planned 2014 relocation of an aircraft carrier flight wing from Naval Air Facility Atsugi to the service’s Iwakuni air station hear Hiroshima.

tritten.travis@stripes.com

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