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US air base functions should be dispersed to Japan SDF bases: Okinawa advisory council

U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan is seen from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter in this file photo taken on Sept. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Michiko Morizono)

An Okinawa Prefecture advisory council comprising national security experts from Japan and abroad has come up with a recommendation that the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan be dispersed among Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF) bases on mainland Japan, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

The recommendation, whose goal is to return Futenma to Okinawa in phases, is slated to be reported by the advisory council, Bankoku Shinryo Kaigi, to Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on March 26, according to those tied to the prefectural government.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government is expected to present the recommendation to the central government in April at the earliest, and seek a review of the Futenma base's relocation within the prefecture to the northern prefectural city of Nago's Henoko district. The prefectural government had thus far taken the stance that it was Tokyo's responsibility to consider a relocation site other than Henoko. Receiving the recommendation from the advisory council and presenting a specific proposal represents a de-facto shift in the prefectural government's policy.

The advisory council, dedicated to the U.S. military base issue, was established in May 2019 to deliberate realistic measures to alleviate the burden of military bases on Okinawa, and build a theory toward a re-examination of the relocation of Futenma to Henoko. Council members include former Defense Agency bureaucrat Kyoji Yanagisawa and George Washington University associate professor Mike Mochizuki. The group has met three times to discuss the recommendation. Gov. Tamaki has said that the recommendation "will be promptly reflected in the prefectural government's policies and efforts."

According to sources linked to the prefectural government, the council is recommending as a solution to the Futenma issue the dispersed relocation of drills of MV-22 Osprey and other aircraft based at Futenma to multiple SDF bases. Since 2013, Osprey drills outside Okinawa Prefecture have been conducted at SDF bases on mainland Japan once or twice a year, and joint Japan-U.S. drills about two weeks a year. By gradually expanding the magnitude and increasing the length of drills that aircraft based at Futenma conduct elsewhere, and rotating the bases that are used, the recommendation aims to minimize the time that aircraft are present at Futenma, and eventually have the base returned to Okinawa.

The recommendation is not expected to name any specific SDF bases, but it is believed that bases that were included in the 2006 U.S.-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation are being considered. This includes Air Self-Defense Force Tsuiki Air Field in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Fukuoka, which is to undergo an extension of its runway for emergency use, set as a condition for the return of the Futenma base; and Nyutabaru Air Base in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Miyazaki; among other bases mainly in the Kyushu region.

The recommendation comes against a backdrop of the newest strategy of the U.S. Marine Corps' stationed at Futenma: expeditionary advanced basing operations (EABO). To fight back against China, whose missile capabilities have improved, EABO is a strategy that does not rely on fixed bases or troops, but rather on small-scale units that are dispersed on the frontlines to mount attacks. The recommendation states that following EABO would make it unnecessary to keep a military outpost in Okinawa, and sets out a vision for a gradual return of Futenma to Okinawa through the dispersal of the base's functions.

(Japanese original by Hiroya Miyagi, Kyushu News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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