Improving the training environment for U.S. forces will strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.
The government has reached an agreement with the owner of Mageshima island in Nishinoomote, Kagoshima Prefecture, to purchase the land as a candidate site for the relocation of landing and takeoff practice for U.S. carrier-borne aircraft. Last month, it began a field survey to construct facilities.
Units based at Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture have conducted field carrier landing practice, in which pilots perform takeoffs and landings at airfields to simulate landing on an aircraft carrier, on Iwoto island about 1,400 kilometers away from the base. If a problem occurs during the flight, there is no evacuation site in the surrounding sea area, which places a heavy burden on the pilots.
Mageshima is an uninhabited island 400 kilometers from Iwakuni. There are also other islands nearby. Conducting practice there will help ensure the safety of pilots as well as reduce fuel expenses and other costs to a certain extent.
U.S. forces have long sought the relocation of the training site. Up until the 1980s, field carrier landing practice was conducted at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture. Because of the high density of residential areas, however, noise damage was a serious problem. The practice site was relocated to Iwoto in 1991.
An increasing number of Chinese aircraft have been approaching Japanese airspace over the East China Sea, and the Air Self Defense Force has scrambled fighter jets in an increasing number of cases. Chinese government ships have been continuously active in the waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Mainly with aircraft-based carriers, the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which is based in Japan, is responsible for the stability of the western Pacific Ocean and the safety of sea lanes leading to the Middle East. Supporting the smooth operations of the U.S. Navy is important for maintaining deterrence.
Local understanding vital
The Defense Ministry plans to use the facility on the island jointly with U.S. forces as an ASDF base. It is necessary to deepen the relationship between Japanese and U.S. units, and strengthen the defense of the Nansei Islands, where the Self Defense Forces are not fully equipped.
It is also worth considering the possibility of conducting drills with Osprey transport aircraft belonging to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture, which would reduce its burden of hosting U.S. bases.
Tanegashima and Yakushima islands, which are close to Mageshima, have rich natural environments. There are many concerns from local governments about noise pollution or its negative impact on the environment.
The government must continue to make efforts to obtain their understanding by carefully explaining the significance of building an important base for national security. Tokyo and Washington should consider a flight route that would prevent fighter jets from flying over Yakushima and other islands.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who continues to tout his “America First” policy, has urged allied nations to increase their defense expenditures. He has also been calling on Japan to shoulder increased expenses for stationing U.S. forces in Japan.
Compared to other countries, Japan has borne enough expense. The government should also convey the fact that it has moved forward to establish situations in which it is easier for U.S. forces to conduct drills.