Delay expected in selecting drill site for U.S. military planes in Japan

A candidate site for a permanent field carrier landing practice facility for U.S. forces in Japan will not be selected by the primary target deadline of July, Japanese and U.S. sources familiar with the matter disclosed recently.

The facility is intended to accommodate FCLP activities currently being conducted on a provisional basis on Iwojima Island, about 1,200 kilometers off the coast of Japan's main island of Honshu, by U.S. carrier-based aircraft stationed at the Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The May 2006 agreement between Japan and the United States on the realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan specified that a site for the permanent FCLP facility should be selected by July 2009 or at the earliest possible date after that month.

According to the sources, Tokyo already notified Washington of the delay when it turned down a U.S. request for a site to be selected within a radius of 180 kilometers from the U.S. Marine Corps' Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The Defense Ministry and the Maritime Self-Defense Force, which are responsible for the project, have been trying to select a site from a broader area.

As FCLP activities, including night landing practices, cause serious noise pollution, the selection process for the facility has been extremely hard going.

The Japanese government had considered Okurokamishima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture, Mageshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture and the vicinity of the city of Sukumo in Kochi Prefecture as candidate sites, but the plans were aborted after strong protests.

The U.S. side appears to be unhappy with the delay, according to the sources, as it could affect the schedule for relocating carrier-borne fighter jets from the Atsugi base located in a densely populated area outside of Tokyo to the Iwakuni base in the less-populous western Japan city.

An official of the U.S. Department of Defense reiterated the importance of the training facility and told Kyodo News that selection of a site for the FCLP facility is a basic premise for the relocation of aircraft from the Atsugi base to the Iwakuni base.

The issue of training facility is considered one of the key but hidden obstacles to the realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan, after the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station in Ginowan to Nago, both in Okinawa Prefecture, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry source.

A series of lawsuits have been filed over aircraft noise at U.S. military bases in Japan, including the Iwakuni and Atsugi bases as well as the Kadena base in Okinawa Prefecture.

(Distributed by Kyodo News on June 28, 2009)