Iwakuni prepared for facelift
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan — The biggest shift of U.S. Pacific forces in decades could begin here with a shovelful of dirt next spring.
Planners are busy redrawing nearly every facet of this coastal air station tucked away in western Japan, from the aircraft hangars to the barber shop, into something new and bigger.
It is a consuming effort that, at this point, remains an act of faith.
"A guy like me has to believe this is going to happen," said Col. Michael O’Halloran, Iwakuni’s commanding officer.
Outside a local bubble of 100 percent certainty, it is anyone’s guess whether Japan’s new ruling party and the U.S. will follow through by 2014 with the realignment of military forces and facilities.
The 2006 agreement includes doubling Iwakuni’s population with a new air wing, a controversial relocation of a Marine air station on Okinawa, and the move of 8,000 Okinawa Marines plus their families to Guam.
Meanwhile, major hurdles — acquiring land for new military housing and completing a decade-long runway project — stand in the way of finishing across-the-board construction in Iwakuni.
Iwakuni’s situation is an example of those faced by facilities from Atsugi to Okinawa to Guam — as the realignment deadline looms, local construction hurdles rise and international politics rattle the entire plan.
The newly elected Japanese government appears determined to rethink some pieces of the plan three years after it was signed. Several weeks ago the U.S. said the agreement is non-negotiable, but State Department officials more recently said it will listen to concerns.
Some answers might come Oct. 15, when the Japanese government completes a draft of its budget for next year and indicates what realignment projects will be funded, Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa said Tuesday.
The air station now stands ready to move dirt as early as spring, a move O’Halloran described as the starting gun in a construction sprint to the realignment deadline.
"Over the next five years, we are building a new base," O’Halloran said.
Facilities are needed for Carrier Air Wing 5, which will relocate from Naval Air Facility Atsugi; a squadron of KC-130 aircraft; a shared civilian air terminal; and about 5,000 new residents, according to the realignment plans.
O’Halloran envisions new hangars and aircraft facilities but also new schools and "green" energy-efficient neighborhoods where residents walk to work and cars are limited.
Brett James, planning director, said he now devotes about 90 percent of his time to making the Iwakuni vision a reality. His department has taken on planning a vast array of projects, from new housing complexes to expanded restaurants and shops.
"This is something that happens quite rarely," he said.
The effort remains on a tight schedule and should be completed by 2014, according to air station officials.
But key to the redevelopment is a multibillion-dollar runway project that, when completed, will free up 530 acres of property and trigger the first construction.
O’Halloran said the Japanese-led runway project should be finished by spring, though it has been plagued by delays for years. A 2008 completion date came and went.
New land for a housing community — almost never an easy proposition in Japan — has proved controversial.
In July, Japanese residents sued the local government over its plan to build housing at the Mount Atago site, a flat stretch of land left from leveling the mountain to provide landfill for the runway and a deep-water port.
The future of housing for thousands of new air station residents remains unclear.
James called the situation "very difficult" and both he and O’Halloran steered away from discussing the debate, which is being played out mostly within the Japanese government.
Meanwhile, the new government could delay taking any action until next year, when it will attempt to cement its power in Japan’s Upper House election, said Toshiyuki Shikata, a retired Japan Ground Self-Defense lieutenant general.
"It won’t be able to make moves," Shikata said. "Many things will be suspended until July."
Stars and Stripes reporters Chiyomi Sumida and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.