(My latest for Asia Times) US Marines eye Japan as a training yard

US Marines eye Japan as a training yard

People across the eastern part of the Japanese mainland are bracing for low-altitude US military flights, while Okinawans fear the Futenma base will become a permanent feature after a United States Marine Corps report revealed plans to gain a stronger training foothold. With Japan's ruling party distracted by internal strife, it seems the US has twisted acceptance of the plans to its advantage. - Kosuke Takahashi (Jun 22, '12)


US Marines eye Japan as a training yard
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - With the energies of Japanese politicians consumed by infighting, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) is pushing forward with plans to gain a stronger foothold in the Japanese archipelago.

Taking advantage of the scheduled deployment of MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to Okinawa, the USMC plans to conduct training flights over almost all of mainland Japan. With US Marines being forced to reduce their military footprint on Okinawa due to local opposition, America seems intent on making the rest of Japan its training yard.

Starting later this year, the US government plans to deploy a total of 24 Ospreys to the controversial USMC air station at Futenma in Okinawa, to replace aging 24 CH-46 transport helicopters.

According to a recent USMC report titled "Final Environmental Review for Basing MV-22 at MCAS Futenma and Operating in Japan (April 2012)" the US will use this situation to moves the Ospreys around the Japanese mainland freely. This report, published on Japan's Ministry of Defense website, shows detailed plans for low-altitude flight training in Japan via six different flight routes above the Japanese archipelago highlighted by different colors below.


Specifically, those six routes are: the Tohoku route across Akita prefecture(pink); the Tohoku route across Miyagi prefecture(green); the Hokushinetsu route across Nigata prefecture(blue); the Shikoku- the Kii peninsula route(orange); the Kyushu route (yellow); the Amami Islands route (purple).

Those routes apparently avoid flying directly over Japan's four largest metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, but still cover a large part of eastern Japan.

The USMC plans have come to light amid a rapidly widening internal rift within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan over Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's plans to double the nation's sales tax.

The MV-22 "combines the vertical capability of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft", the environmental review stresses about the significance of the planned deployment of the aircraft. "Its capabilities would significantly strengthen Marine Expeditionary Force's (III MEF's) ability to assist in the defense of Japan, perform humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and fulfill other Alliance roles."

"The US has been always very good at making use of trigger incidents in the past," Ukeru Magosaki, the former chief of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's international intelligence bureau, told Asia Times Online. "It turns situations to its advantage nicely."

Under the proposed action, the USMC would make the fullest possible use of Camp Fuji in Shizuoka prefecture and Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture on mainland Japan and those six routes extending along Japanese islands. Currently, the CH-46E squadrons do not use Camp Fuji and MCAS Iwakuni and those routes.

"Due to the distance, the CH-46E aircrews do not regularly conduct operations on mainland Japan," the environmental review said. "However, given the MV-22s ability to fly in airplane mode, these aircraft would be able to cover greater distances in less time than the CH-46s."

The MV-22 can fly roughly twice as fast, four times as far, and carry three times the combat or humanitarian mission load of the CH-46E, it said. Ospreys can fly continuously for up to 3,900 kilometers, while the CH-46E has a maximum flight distance of about 700 kilometers.

Although the aircraft would be based at MCAS Futenma, the USMC plans to send a detachment of two to six MV-22s to Camp Fuji and MCAS Iwakuni each month for two to three days. At Camp Fuji, the deployed MV-22 detachments are expected to fly about 500 annual operations making for a 10% increase in overall activity at that location. For MCAS Iwakuni, a similar number of annual MV-22 operations are also expected, on average, which would account for a 0.8% increase in total airfield operations.

The USMC expects that the squadrons would likely fly on one or more of these six routes during each day of these brief deployments, conducting a total of 330 operations annually on each route, the report said. These added operations would result in increases in use averaging 21% for all routes, with the other primary users consisting of AV-8B Harriers and FA-18 Hornets.

The MV-22 squadrons are expected to conduct 28% and 4% of these six route operations between evening and night, respectively, or about one-third of them during late afternoon and night. In addition, the US plans to conduct low-level flight training down to 500 feet, or 152 meters, above ground level in those six courses, at airspeeds of 120 to 250 knots, depending upon the flight mode.

The existing US facilities on Okinawa will be a major component of the planned training flights. The USMC plans to operate about 6,700 flights out of Futenma annually, which would result in a net decrease of around 2,600 airfield operations per year.

However, it has proposed 69 landing zones for use by the MV-22 on Okinawa. Fifty of these located on mainland Okinawa and the island of Iejima will be tactical landing zones used solely for training missions consisting of landings, take-offs, and approaches that simulate combat situations.

The review for the first time also mentioned USMC plans to use Ospreys in six landing zones scheduled for construction in the Okinawa's Northern Training Area. It aims to conduct 420 operations in each of those six zones for Ospreys annually for a total of 2,520. This is a 95% increase compared with the current CH-46E's 1,288 operations.

For Okinawans, the plans to deploy the Osprey at Futenma strengthen perceptions that the air base will become a permanent fixture, although local governments, supported by the majority of Okinawans, have demanded the immediate closure and transfer of Futenma outside of the prefecture.

The MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) transport aircraft was once called the "widow-maker" due to a series of accidents during its development; 36 people have died in V-22s since the plane began flying so far. Most recently two marines died in an MV-22 crash in April in Morocco.

It is this safety record that concerns Okinawa prefectural government and local residents, leading them to fiercely oppose this planned deployment.

The US has capitalized on change of US military bases on Okinawa. In the late 1990s, there were plans to just close the Futenma airbase, not to relocate it to Henoko, Nago, in northern Okinawa, after three marines raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl; but after that, the US administration managed to make the closing of Futenma a package deal linked to the building of a new sea-based heliport off Camp Schwab.

This planned heliport will have two 1,800-meter V-shaped runways. However, helicopters have no need for such long runways and this is especially true for Ospreys, which can take off and land in small spaces.

Military experts believe the US intends to create a second Kaneda Air Base off Camp Schwab just in case the original Kadena Air Base is attacked. This is said to be one of the major reasons why the Pentagon has opposed the integration of USMC Futenma air station with the Kaneda Air base.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also writes for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke

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