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F-15s transferred to Okinawa base to strengthen defense against China

The Ministry of Defense has boosted the number of F-15 fighters at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) Naha Air Base in Okinawa to about 40 -- an increase of around 1.5 times -- and created a new, ninth air group, the ministry announced on Jan. 31.

    The increase in aircraft comes as part of the Defense Ministry's "southwestern shift" of forces. The additional F-15s were moved to Naha Air Base from JASDF Tsuiki Air Base in Fukuoka Prefecture.

    The Naha Air Base handles air defense for Okinawa and Kyushu. Fighter craft were scrambled 468 times from the base in fiscal 2014, accounting for about half of all scrambles across the nation. The area covered by the base had the most fighter scrambles of the nation for the fourth year in a row, and the number in fiscal 2014 was four times what it had been five years earlier. The reason for the large jump is the increased activity of Chinese aircraft in the East China Sea.

    "In addition to there being many scrambles by fighter craft groups at Naha, they have a large territory to cover. Compared to (Japan's) other fighter craft groups, they have had a large burden to bear," says a senior JASDF officer in explaining the reason for the first new creation of an air group in around 50 years.

    However, congestion and safety present a problem. Fighter jets from Naha Air Base use a single runway at Naha Airport that is also used by civilian aircraft and the Ground and Maritime Self-Defense Forces. In fiscal 2014, Naha Airport saw 155,000 takeoffs and landings, making it one of the nation's most heavily trafficked airports.

    In June last year, there was an incident in which a JASDF helicopter cut in front of a civilian aircraft as it was on the runway for takeoff.

    According to the Defense Ministry, with the F-15 transfers the number of takeoffs and landings at the airport is expected to increase. A representative for the Naha Airport office of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism says, "We have asked that the JASDF avoid putting any more influence on civilian aircraft, such as by moving any new practice flights to times that avoid the crowded hours during the day."

    Four years from now, in March 2020, use of a second runway is planned to start at the airport, but until then overuse of the single runway is expected to continue.

    A senior JASDF official says, "All we can do is try to get by while also completing our southwestern defense duties."

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