European and Pacific Stars & Stripes
: "Congressional panel says reducing forces on Okinawa could be dangerous"
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Reducing the number of American forces on Okinawa may not be a wise move at a time of uncertain and shifting security issues in East Asia, according to a panel created by Congress to study the basing of U.S. forces overseas.
In a report to be released publicly Monday, the Overseas Basing Commission advised the Pentagon to go slow in considering any changes to the troop level on the island.
“Okinawa is the strategic linchpin to operational capabilities in East Asia,” the 262-page report states. “Diminishing our combat capability on the island would pose great risk to our national interests in the region.”
The report stressed that although today’s military focus predominantly is on terror threats in other regions, “we cannot rule out that sometime in the next quarter of a century the emergence of a more traditional great power competitor … in East Asia.”
Recommendations include adjusting the Okinawa basing posture by transferring air assets on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to nearby Kadena Air Base and/or Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on the Japanese mainland.
“All other Marine Corps assets should remain on Okinawa,” the report states.
Col. Victor Warzinski, spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan, said the commission’s statement concerning the importance of Okinawa was “spot on.”
“Okinawa is the linchpin, or keystone, to East Asia and we’re pleased to see the commission noted that,” Warzinski said.
However, he questioned whether moving Marine air operations to Kadena or Iwakuni would be possible.
“Kadena is already an active, vibrant base,” he said. “This is not as simple as moving pins on a map.”
Okinawa’s U.S. military bases cover 20 percent of the main island in the prefecture and represent 75 percent of the area used solely by the U.S. military in Japan. Of some 47,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, more than half are on Okinawa.
The commission noted that although the two countries agreed in 1996 to return 21 percent of the property used by U.S. forces on Okinawa, few turnovers have been completed.
“Okinawa has a particularly strategic location and hosts a significant number of U.S. combat forces,” the report states. “This has been a local irritant, not because of anti-U.S. sentiment, but rather due to the pacifistic nature of the older generation who endured the Battle of Okinawa.
“Some realignment of forces on this particular island is planned and may ameliorate local feelings while maintaining the necessary forces for the defense of Korea and other regional contingencies,” it concluded.
For the past decade, a vocal minority on Okinawa has pushed for the removal of all Marines — numbering some 18,000, according to the commission — from the island. U.S. and Japanese officials are in the midst of talks regarding the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, but no agreements have been reached.
Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine, who advocates some troop reductions and moving MCAS Futenma to an offshore base, was unavailable Friday for comment.
“As we were closely looking into the contents of the report, it is too early to make any comments on it,” said a senior prefectural official.
Marine officials had little comment on the report Friday.
“It is inappropriate for us to discuss specific aspects of these talks,” said Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Eric Tausch. “The Marines are ready to begin relocating MCAS Futenma when a suitable replacement facility that meets our operational needs is completed.”