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Why can’t Japan regulate U.S. military’s low-altitude flight training?

  • March 25, 2021
  • , Asahi evening edition , p. 9
  • JMH Translation

By Kunikazu Tanita


Why does the U.S. military insist on conducting low-altitude flight training? The major who leads the drills at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni said in the Iwakuni base’s news blog that “the purpose of the training is to build confidence and acquire necessary skills.”


“It may sound absurd to conduct dangerous low-altitude flight training in the era of stealth fighters. But this is how we can get at an enemy’s weak spot,” the major said.


The Marines’ training manual allows aircraft to fly at altitudes of about 200 feet (approximately 60 meters) to practice intrusions in enemy airspace. Training in Japan, however, is restricted in a number of ways. For example, cyberattack exercises and the use of live ammunition are banned. Low-altitude flights under 500 feet (approximately 150 meters) are also prohibited, so the U.S. military has been conducting the exercises in Australia or the mainland U.S., including Alaska.


“The U.S. military engages in low-altitude flight training because such piloting skills are needed to intrude into and attack enemy territory to protect Japan,” says Masato Ushio, 61, a commentator who previously served as a Self-Defense Forces fighter pilot. “The SDF does not have attack capabilities because its mission is exclusively self-defense. If the U.S. military doesn’t [do the low-altitude trainings], the SDF would have to fly at those altitudes instead.”


Recently, many cases of U.S. military aircraft flying at a low altitudes have been reported in various parts of Okinawa Prefecture, triggering great protest from area residents.


At a Japan-U.S. Joint Committee meeting in 1999, the two nations’ governments agreed to maximize safety during low-altitude flight training and minimize the impact on residents.”


Although there is real risk that this agreement will be violated, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (61) dismissed the concern, saying, “These are important exercises for achieving the goals of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.” Kishi likely had the 1999 agreement in mind when he made that remark.


In late February, the Asahi Shimbun asked for an interview with the U.S. Forces Japan in Tokyo. After a briefing on the heightening tensions in the region surrounding Japan, Colonel Robert Firman, Director of Public Affairs for U.S. Forces Japan, talked about the necessity of conducting training exercises in Japan. “We conduct realistic training exercises not only in Japan but all over the world. High-end training is essential for maintaining a state of preparedness,” he said.


As for coordination with the Japanese government, Firman stressed, “The U.S. military is in close contact with the Japanese side and pays special attention to complying with the agreement reached with Japan.” “It is important that the Japanese government talks to the people of Japan and explains the close cooperation between our two countries and the importance of the training.”


Retired U.S. Marine Colonel Grant Newsham (64) was military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and liaison officer to the SDF. Newsham says he has long experienced a discrepancy [in understanding] between Japan and the U.S.: “In short, local complaints and opposition to the USFJ and its operations are not issues that should be addressed by the USFJ. The Japanese government, which has agreed to the stationing of U.S. military in the nation, should be responsible for addressing such issues.”


Japan’s situation is very different from that in Germany and Italy, which also host the U.S. military.


Toshihiro Yoshida (63), journalist and author of a book titled “Yokota Airspace” says Germany and Italy both have local safety standards that apply to foreign military training and the two countries’ governments have the right to approve flight altitudes and duration of training. In Japan, local law is not strictly enforced due to the Status of Forces Agreement.  Yoshida is clear about one point: “Italy and Germany are able to [impose local law]. There is no reason Japan shouldn’t be able to do the same.” (Slightly abridged)

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