Futenma closing to fixed-wing aircraft during runway repairs
GINOWAN, Okinawa — While politicians in Washington and Tokyo debate the future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the base will be closed to all fixed-wing aircraft for more than three months beginning Jan. 10.
Repair work on the base runways will limit air traffic and thus might reduce the noise residents often complain about, but it could spark more controversy elsewhere. While helicopters will continue to use the facility, fixed-wing aircraft will be redirected to nearby Kadena Air Base.
Some Japanese officials have suggested permanently moving Futenma flight operations to the sprawling Air Force base, even though such a consolidation has been rejected by U.S. officials several times in the past.
Before the idea could gain further momentum, Marine Corps Bases Japan issued a news release Tuesday addressing the transfer.
“The temporary movement of Marine Corps fixed-wing aircraft from MCAS Futenma to Kadena Air Base in no way supports or implies the feasibility of consolidating Futenma aviation operations at Kadena Air Base,” the release said.
Under a bilateral agreement signed in May 2006, the base, located in the heart of this city of 92,000 people, is to be closed once an air facility is built on Camp Schwab, along Okinawa’s rural northeast coast. The design calls for two runways that begin on the Henoko Peninsula and run over landfill in Oura Bay.
Opponents say residents would be at risk from accidents and noise pollution and that the project would threaten a feeding area of endangered dugongs, salt water manatees that make the Okinawa waters their northernmost home.
Japan’s new left-center government in Tokyo has put the project in limbo while it studies alternate sites.
Ichiro Ozawa, secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, said Tuesday that remote Shimoji Island, located midway between Okinawa and Taiwan, would be a good site for Marine air operations, the Mainichi newspaper reported.
Quoting an unnamed source, the paper said Ozawa made the suggestion during a year-end party in Tokyo for top officials of the three parties in the ruling coalition.
It’s not the first time Shimoji has been mentioned as a possible site for MCAS Futenma. The island’s airport, with a 3,000-meter runway, is used mostly for training commercial airline pilots. There are no regularly scheduled flights to the island. It was visited in October by an official from the Japanese Defense Ministry to determine if it would be an acceptable relocation site.
In May 2001, a Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Pentagon recommended the island’s airport be used by the Marines, offering them a better position to respond to any trouble in the Taiwan Strait. Shimoji Island, part of Irabu Town, is only 250 miles from Taiwan.
U.S. officials have said Schwab is the only acceptable location for relocating Futenma and insist it is key to the entire realignment agreement, which calls for closing most of the U.S. bases south of Kadena Air Base and moving major Marine commands and more than 8,000 active-duty personnel and their families to Guam in 2014.
The runway project on Futenma will last through April, according to the release. The fixed-wing aircraft that will operate temporarily from Kadena include KC-130 tanker-transports and smaller UC-35 and UC-12 light passenger and cargo aircraft.
Runway repairs will include removing rubber, sealing concrete joints, repairing or replacing concrete sections, regrooving and repainting, the release said.
“It is important that the runway is maintained in order to ensure the safety of future operations at the air station,” the release said.