Effective Way to Improve Training Environment for U.S. Forces

The Japan-U.S. alliance will be deepened if the military training environment for U.S. forces that are involved in the defense of Japan can be improved. The Japanese government must thoroughly explain the significance of constructing a new base and broaden the understanding of local governments.

The Defense Ministry has begun the construction of a Self-Defense Forces base to be used jointly with the U.S. military on the uninhabited island of Mageshima in Nishinoomote, Kagoshima Prefecture, with two runways — one 2,450 meters long and the other 1,830 meters — a port and other facilities to be in operation by 2027.

The main purpose of constructing the new base is to provide the U.S. military with a venue for carrier-based aircraft to conduct field carrier landing practice (FCLP).

Pilots of carrier-based aircraft can thus carry out FCLP exercises — repeatedly taking off and landing on the runway as though it were the deck of a ship — while the aircraft carrier is in port in Japan. Since short-distance takeoffs and landings on an aircraft carrier require a high level of skill, it is essential to maintain a high level of proficiency.

Currently, the U.S. military conducts FCLP exercises on the island of Iwoto in Tokyo, about 1,400 kilometers from the U.S. Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, to which the ship-borne aircraft belong. Since there is nowhere for aircraft to land in case of trouble while traveling to and from the island, the military has long sought an alternative site.

Mageshima is located about 400 kilometers from the Iwakuni base. The aim of reducing the burden on pilots by relocating the U.S. forces’ training site is understandable.

In 2011, the Japanese government selected Mageshima as a candidate site for FCLPs. However, negotiations to acquire the land were arduous and it took time to gain local understanding regarding the base’s construction. The problem was the potential noise generated by the exercises.

The U.S. Atsugi air base in Kanagawa Prefecture, where FCLPs were conducted until the early 1990s, was the subject of repeated noise lawsuits. Residents of the island of Tanegashima, 12 kilometers from Mageshima, are concerned that FCLP noise could damage their living environment.

FCLPs are scheduled to take place on Mageshima about 10 to 20 days per year, according to the Defense Ministry. The ministry has explained to the local community that it will make a request to the U.S. side on each occasion to minimize the impact on the local community. It should continue to demand that the aircraft strictly follow flight paths that avoid the airspace over Tanegashima.

The new base will also serve as an important site for improving the SDF’s response capabilities. The ministry envisions military drills such as takeoffs and landings of fighter jets and the operation of amphibious vehicles. It is important to strengthen the defense system for remote islands.

The base could also be used as a hub for rescue operations in the event of a major disaster in the Nansei Islands and its surrounding areas.

To reduce the base-hosting burden on Okinawa Prefecture, where there is a high concentration of U.S. military facilities, it is advisable to consider conducting training on Mageshima for the Osprey transport aircraft belonging to the U.S. Futenma Air Station.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 19, 2023)