A gray US Air Force tanker banks sharply toward the runway, its four turbofans screaming as it flares for landing. As its tires hit the runway they give off a bluish smoke through which the outline of a US Navy maritime patrol plane taxiing on the tarmac becomes visible.
It’s the patrol plane’s turn now, and it accelerates, its propellers grinding the air, to take its place in a long line of aircraft waiting to take off from the Kadena Air Base, the largest part of what is arguably the most vital military complex in the Pacific for the United States and its closest regional allies.
An explosive political drama that reached its climax earlier this month underscored the importance of Kadena and the surrounding bases. On June 2, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stepped down after weeks of tumbling public support for his administration. The reason—the ongoing uncertainty over the future of US forces in Japan.
During the general election campaign last year, Hatoyama had vowed to reconsider a 2006 deal over the relocation of US Marines from the Futenma Air Station, a smaller base just south of Kadena. After strongly hinting that he would abandon the 2006 deal, Hatoyama announced in late May his continued support for the existing agreement reached under the previous Liberal Democratic Party administration.
Under this agreement, the Marines would eventually relocate their airstrip to a less-populated part of the island prefecture. But many Okinawans oppose any US military presence there at all. US bases—and Futenma, especially—have generally been unpopular among the now largely pacifist Japanese public, particularly Okinawans. In 1995, three US servicemen from Futenma abducted and raped a local schoolgirl, further stoking opposition to the base. And aircraft crashes are another safety concern, especially as Kadena and Futenma have between them several hundred US military aircraft permanently based at facilities surrounded by densely populated residential neighbourhoods.
The decision to stick with the 2006 deal represented the belated recognition on Hatoyama’s part that ‘there was no other good option’ for the strategically-vital Marine presence and for the US-Japanese alliance in general, according to Michael Auslin, an Asia expert with the American Enterprise Institute. In that context, the prime minister’s vague election promise to Okinawan base-detractors was a ‘miscalculation.’
So, will the Futenma dispute also prove the undoing of Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, who has so far stayed quiet on the base issue? If anything, the crisis over Futenma underscored the lasting, even growing, importance of US military facilities in Okinawa—not only for the United States, but also for Japan and other US allies. As China’s economic and military rise continues and tensions mount over North Korea’s nuclear programme and its alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, the US and its Asian allies need Okinawa more than ever.
‘The US, South Korea and Australia have been very vocal to Japan, saying, “Hey, be careful what you’re doing,”’ Sheila Smith, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, says. ‘This isn’t a good moment to be taking large numbers of US forces out of Japan.’
Aside from US forces in South Korea (which are exclusively focused on the North Korean land threat) there are just two significant concentrations of US troops in East Asia: in Okinawa and on the Pacific island of Guam. Okinawa lies just an hour’s flight time from both the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan; Guam, by contrast, is 1000 miles from any potential theatre of war.
‘It may be easier for us to be there [in Guam], as far as the diplomatic issue is concerned,’ says Air Force spokesman John Monroe. ‘But if we’re in Guam, we’re out of the fight’ due to the distance. For combat forces to be capable of reacting quickly to the most likely crises, Okinawa is the only realistic option.
Without its 2 Okinawan air bases and their 3 roughly 10,000-foot runways, the US military—and by extension, US allies—would depend almost entirely on a handful of US aircraft carriers for bringing to bear aerial firepower in East Asia. That might be a realistic option, except that China has lately deployed several new classes of anti-ship weaponry specifically meant for sinking US carriers, including the widely-feared DF-21 ballistic missile and a flotilla of stealthy fast-attack vessels.
In recognition of Okinawa’s growing importance, the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars in the past decade modernizing forces and facilities on the island. The US Army deployed Patriot air-defence missiles capable of shooting down enemy aircraft as well as ballistic missiles, a favourite weapon of both China and North Korea. Kadena got extensive new storage bunkers for bombs, missiles and spare parts, allowing the base to support potentially hundreds of aircraft flown in from the United States during an emergency. In 2007, the US Air Force began stationing Global Hawk long-range spy drones and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters at Kadena.
The Raptors represent perhaps the greatest improvement. Indeed, in the minds of US planners, in many ways Okinawa’s most important function is to support the F-22s. In a 2009 study examining a simulated air war pitting the United States and Taiwan against China, the California-based think-tank RAND concluded that a wing of F-22s could shoot down 27 Chinese fighters for every Raptor lost in the air.
F-22s flying from Okinawa could also clear the way for air strikes on ground targets in China or North Korea, according to Lieutenant Colonel Wade Tolliver, commander of the 27th Fighter Squadron, an F-22 unit based in Virginia that routinely sends Raptors to Kadena. ‘There are a lot of countries out there that have developed highly integrated air-defence systems,’ Tolliver says. ‘What we need to do is take some of our assets that have special capabilities…and we need to roll back those integrated air defence systems so we can bring in our joint forces.’
The base’s ability to host F-22s and follow-on aircraft is ‘probably the most important thing about Kadena,’ Monroe says. ‘Because of our capability to stage forces out of here—this is a huge runway—we do believe we have unmatched air power.’
All this planning for air wars with China and North Korea doesn’t mean that planners in the United States, Japan or anywhere else believe such conflict is inevitable. Pyongyang remains predictable only in its volatility, but Washington, Tokyo and Beijing are all working hard to forge peaceful and lasting ties. The strategic uncertainty is in the margins. ‘There’s no question you want to engage China, but (we should) hedge against an uncertain future,’ Nicholas Szechenyi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says.
It’s as a hedge that Okinawa remains indispensable to the US and its allies—so much so that the shared international need for the island’s bases must trump any Japanese domestic political calculations. Hatoyama ignored that truth at the expense of his job. The question now is will Kan?