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An F-15 Eagle, one of 54 stationed at Kadena Air Base, takes off Dec. 2, 2011. Congress wants to study whether flight operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma can also be moved to the air base.
An F-15 Eagle, one of 54 stationed at Kadena Air Base, takes off Dec. 2, 2011. Congress wants to study whether flight operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma can also be moved to the air base. (Matt Orr/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – Sen. John McCain said this week that new U.S. military bases planned in Japan and Guam might be replaced with joint-basing agreements similar to a deal struck last month between the United States and Australia.

Sharing our allies’ military bases is becoming a more realistic option in the Pacific as countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam eye Chinese activity and the U.S. tries to slash hundreds of billions of dollars from its defense budget, the Arizona Republican said during a forum hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative on Tuesday.

The comments follow this month’s call by Congress to review basing plans in the region and freeze any funding over the next year for moving thousands of Marines from Okinawa to new facilities planned on Guam.

In response, Tokyo this week moved to cut funding for the basing plan in its upcoming annual budget, according to the Yomuiri newspaper.

The project that has been mired in political controversy since the U.S. and Japan struck a formal agreement in 2006.

“We put a pause on this whole realignment until we get an overall study of what we can do in the region,” McCain said Tuesday. “What I would envision would come out of it [the study] is kind of a joint-operating base concept in the region along the lines of what we just did with Australia.”

President Barack Obama announced in November that the U.S. will rotate 2,500 Marines through Australian bases in Darwin and that the Air Force will have increased access to Australia’s airfields in the region, providing a counterbalance to China yet requiring no construction of new U.S. bases.

With such a joint-basing arrangement, the U.S. military does not “have to build the hospital, the school, the family housing, but you go in and you have joint operations,” McCain said. “I think that is the model of the future.”

The traditional style of building large, regional U.S. military bases is unaffordable as the country struggles with a financial recession and the Pentagon looks to cut $600 billion in expenses, he said.

Moving Marines from Okinawa to Guam “was going to cost $6 billion,” McCain said. “You know what the cost is now, and they haven’t turned a shovel? $16 billion. We can’t afford to do that.”

The Government Accountability Office found the military has not fully accounted for all costs in the realignment and estimated the move could come in at nearly $24 billion over the next 10 years.

The U.S. and Japan want to shift the Futenma air station to a newly built location farther north on Okinawa and move 8,600 Marines and their families from the Japanese island to new bases on Guam. Plans also include building training ranges on the neighboring island of Tinian, transient berthing for aircraft carriers, and an Air Force reconnaissance and strike center.

The national defense authorization bill hammered out by Congress this week includes language added by McCain, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that allows lawmakers to order an independent study of the military realignment plan in the Pacific by mid-2012. The defense bill must be signed by the president.

Despite the uncertainty in Congress, the Department of Defense said Wednesday it is still dedicated to the current plans to move forces from Okinawa to Guam.

“We will continue to consult and coordinate with our allies and partners and stakeholders within the U.S. government -- including Congress -- to address concerns,” outgoing Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy said in a prepared statement. The planned shift “will result in a reduced number of Marines in Okinawa and a consolidation of our bases in Okinawa, both of which will lessen the impact in Okinawa.”

Okinawans have long chafed over the large U.S. military presence on the island, and many oppose keeping Marine Corps flight operations on the island by relocating Futenma farther north.

Tokyo continues to struggle with the unpopular relocation plans despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s vow to the U.S. that progress will be made.

Noda said in September that his administration will complete an environmental assessment of the Futenma relocation by the end of the year, which would be a crucial first step in the project.

But, in what is bound to be a blow to Noda’s efforts, the cash-strapped government in Tokyo has decided to cut any Futenma relocation funding and to reduce funding for the relocation of Marines to Guam in its upcoming annual budget, according to Japanese media reports.

The Ministry of Defense said Thursday it would not comment on the funding until the budget is approved, which is expected by the end of the month.

The full video of McCain’s speech can be found on the Foreign Policy Initiative website.


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