Commander, U.S. Forces Japan and Commander, Fifth Air Force, Yokota Air Base, Japan, Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Waskow.

Commander, U.S. Forces Japan and Commander, Fifth Air Force, Yokota Air Base, Japan, Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Waskow. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Maintaining the robust dynamic of the U.S.-Japan alliance is vital to stability within the Asia-Pacific region, but it also will be instrumental in containing the global terrorist threat, Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Waskow said at a press conference Friday.

Calling that relationship “as strong as ever,” the outgoing head of U.S. Forces Japan and the 5th Air Force, who will turn over those leadership posts Thursday to Lt. Gen. Bruce A. Wright during a change-of-command ceremony in Yokota’s Hangar 15, touched on a range of issues, including potential realignment, the American military’s shifting focus and the expanding role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces over the past 15 years.

Waskow, a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy, announced retirement plans last fall but remained in place as Wright’s nomination made its way through the Senate. He spent 14 of the past 16 years overseas, completing three tours in Japan. “There have been significant changes during the period I’ve been here,” he said Friday. “They literally reflect centuries of change, not decades. It’s the smallest military I’ve been in over the course of my career, but our accomplishments are significant. I come away with a great sense of pride.”

“We’re a small force, but an efficient one. Our young sailors, airmen, Marines and soldiers have responded very well to the changes. They’ve flexed to the realities of the world we live in today. The kids have stepped up to the plate and … hit a home run.”

After serving as vice commander of Kadena Air Base’s 18th Tactical Fighter Wing from 1989-90, Waskow moved on to Yokota, working as the 5th Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations until June 1992. In November 2001, he became Japan’s senior U.S. military representative.

“When I was here before, the focus was primarily on the Cold War. That was the major threat,” he said. “We were geared toward providing a good, stable alliance in the face of the Soviet Union and Chinese presence.

“Today, the situation is much different. Rather than a threat that’s nationally based, the one we face today is instability … from a global terrorist network, along with small geographic disturbances that could blow up.”

While collective defense is another lingering issue, he said, the healthy ties between the United States and Japan will be critical in fortifying security on the global stage.

Since the early 1990s, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have become far more proficient, even as their numbers have dwindled, Waskow said. He said improvements in intelligence-sharing and cooperation are the driving forces of success within the U.S.-Japan alliance.

“In the future, the foundation of stability in this region will be the U.S.-Japan relationship,” he said. “China is developing financially. Korean reunification is still up for debate, and there has been a rise of global terrorism in the region. But the number one constant in the Asia-Pacific region is the stable nature of the relationship between our two great countries.”

Still, he said, changes are likely as the Department of Defense continues with its global posture review. Over the past two years, the United States and Japan have taken part in a series of discussions, floating different ideas about the potential reorganization and realignment of U.S. forces here.

Waskow declined to identify specific proposals, but he indicated the U.S. military wants to “reduce the noise burden on local communities” and address a “perceived burden” of the American presence on Okinawa.

“There are perceptions about the presence of the U.S. military that are unfair,” he said. “I think we’re very similar with our goals. We may have different ways of approaching it.

“Those points will be discussed by our two governments. … We must be patient and allow them to come up with a decision that’ll best suit the interests of both of our nations.”

Waskow, a command pilot with more than 4,700 flying hours, including 904 in combat, praised the work of USFJ and 5th Air Force personnel during his tenure.

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