KUSU, Oita Prefecture–The U.S. Marine Corps. staged one of its largest live-fire drills to date at a training ground here April 16, fueling further anxiety among local residents about the secrecy surrounding the annual shooting match.
About 320 U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa Prefecture took part in the exercise. It is scheduled to last until April 27 at the Ground Self-Defense Force Hijiudai training site and involved the use of sophisticated weaponry such as surveillance drones and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) for the first time.
It ranked among the largest drills ever held at the site, which straddles the municipalities of Yufuin, Kusu and Kokonoe in the prefecture.
The day started with the roar of artillery shells being fired at 8:43 a.m. that emitted white plumes of smoke, followed by even louder booms.
A local group monitoring the exercise expressed concern that the U.S. military appears more reluctant than ever to disclose information about the event.
“The exercise is hitting a new phase, with the use of the HIMARS and other equipment, but we local residents have been given very little information about it,” said Ryuji Urata, head of the secretariat of the group, the Local Net Oita Hijiudai.
The group recorded the number of artillery shots and when they were fired from a monitoring spot. It plans to observe the activity on a daily basis from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. until the exercise winds up.
The Defense Ministry’s Kyushu Defense Bureau scheduled a briefing about the exercise on the afternoon of April 16, but U.S. military officials were absent, having informed the Japanese side the previous day that they would not attend.
“Coordination between Japan and and the U.S. side did not work out in time,” said a ministry official, referring to the lack of U.S. representation at the briefing.
On April 17, the U.S. military began live-fire drills that are not open to the public.
Prefectural authorities protested the decision, calling it “highly regrettable.”
“It obviously is a rollback of information disclosure,” said a prefectural official.
Live-fire drills by the U.S. Marine Corps. began at the Hijiudai site in 1999. It is one of five sites across the nation selected in 1997 for such activities in an effort to reduce the burden shouldered by Okinawa, which hosts around 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Until last year, the exercise was held at Hijiudai between January and March.
(This article was written by Masayuki Shiraishi, Ryuta Kuratomi and Takeshi Takashima.)