By Junji Akechi and Kyoji Matsumoto
U.S. carrier-based aircraft began field carrier landing practice (FCLP) on Ioto, one of Tokyo’s Ogasawara Islands on May 3. Their FCLP training was conducted there for the first time since the U.S. military completed its transfer of carrier-borne aircraft [from the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Facility Atsugi] to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Iwakuni City. It ended on May 25, with an extension of 12 days behind schedule due to suspension for “operational reasons.”
MCAS Iwakuni had been designated as an alternative facility where Iwakuni-based carrier-borne fighter jets were to have conducted FCLP training in case Ioto is unavailable due to bad weather or for some other reasons. In that case, local residents feared that training causing intense noise could take place at the base close to the city’s urban areas. On June 14, Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda pointed out during a general interpellation session at the Iwakuni City Council, “There’s no need to designate the Iwakuni base as an alternative facility if training can be extended on Ioto.”
FCLP is considered training that is indispensable for carrier-based fighter jets. They repeat touch-and-go training, simulating deck landings and takeoffs. FCLP has not been conducted at MCAS Iwakuni since 2000. Iwakuni City announced that it would accept the relocation of carrier-based aircraft if the U.S. military does not conduct FCLP at the base. Despite that, the base was designated as a back-up facility.
Is there a possibility that FCLP may be conducted at MCAS Iwakuni? In mid-March, before the relocation of carrier-borne aircraft was completed, Chugoku Shimbun asked U.S. Forces Japan, headquartered in Tokyo, for an interview with a senior official. But in early June, USFJ headquarters declined the interview proposal. Chugoku Shimbun had submitted its questions, and USFJ answered the questions in written form.
USFJ, in its written reply regarding FCLP, explained that carrier-borne fighter planes “could use other facilities in Japan if Ioto is unavailable due to bad conditions.” The reply indicated the fact that the local municipality’s conditions for accepting the relocation of carrier-based aircraft take a backseat to the U.S. military’s operational reasons.
What lies behind the U.S. military’s assertion is an unsolved problem relating to the relocation of carrier-based aircraft. The Japanese government has promised the U.S. military that it will provide a facility constantly available for FCLP. In fact, however, the government has yet to decide on where to build it.
The distance from MCAS Iwakuni to Ioto is roughly 1,400 kilometers, which is 200 kilometers longer than that from NAF Atsugi to Ioto. The U.S. strongly demanded that FCLP be conducted at a place much closer to MCAS Iwakuni for safe flights to and from the training site. Tokyo and Washington in June 2011 agreed on a plan to designate Mageshima, an uninhabited island in Nishinoomote City in Kagoshima Prefecture, as a candidate site. But the government’s negotiations with the land owner for acquisition have been prolonged with no progress in sight.
There has also been strong opposition from local residents. The Ministry of Defense has not informed Nishinoomote City of how its negotiations are going. In the Nishinoomote mayoral election in March 2017, a first-time candidate opposing the plan claimed victory. Hiromi Nagano, 61, a city assembly member who belongs to a residents’ group opposing the plan, is angry and says, “Imposing roaring sounds is not tolerated.” Even if the government could acquire Mageshima, it is not clear whether it can gain approval from the local government.
As long as MCAS Iwakuni is designated as a back-up facility, the local residents fear FCLP training will continue to take place at the base. In September 2017, FCLP was carried out at NAF Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture, home to carrier-based aircraft at that time, due to a “typhoon.” It is not hard to imagine that MCAS Iwakuni will be the first choice [as an FCLP training site] other than Mageshima in the future.
The government should not allow FCLP at MCAS Iwakuni on its own responsibiity. It needs to secure a commitment from the U.S. [not to conduct FCLP at MCAS Iwakuni] and dispel local concerns. It should also explain how the current plan is going on, to say nothing of the necessity of a permanent facility for FCLP. The government must not decide on a place for FCLP training without consulting with local municipalities.