Pair of F-15Js. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user woinary.

Pair of F-15Js. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user woinary.

Well, this is certainly interesting: Japan is considering using a civil airfield in the Ryukyu islands to base F-15s, because those based on Okinawa are too far away.

The planes would be stationed on Shimojijima Island, which is much closer to the Japan-administered Senkakus, which China claims as the Diaoyu, than to Okinawa’s prefectural capital Naha, where the Air Self-Defense Force’s F-15s are based.

But since Shimojijima Airport is not equipped for military use, the ministry would have to make several modifications before shifting the fighters over from Okinawa Island, the sources said. The island is right next to better known Miyakojima Island.

In mid-December, when a Chinese government plane entered Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the ASDF scrambled eight F-15 jets from the base in Naha. By the time they got near the disputed islands, however, the plane in question had left. (Link)

In addition to being far away Naha is a crowded airport, servicing civilian airlines, the GSDF, the Okinawa Prefectural Police, and the Japan Coast Guard. Here it is in Google Maps:

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Note the Japan Coast Guard aircraft to the west, and a full squadron of P-3C Orions just south of the civilian planes. And the hardened aircraft hangars and munitions bunkers to the south.

Shimojijima could work, although the idea itself needs work. At 9,843 feet the airfield is just as long as Naha, though it has only one runway. It has a tower. But it only has one building that appears to be capable of storing aircraft inside, let alone hardened facilities for storing aircraft or munitions. To accommodate high performance fighters operating at a high tempo, it would require expanded fuel storage and living quarters for aircrew and maintenance personnel. You would also want to garrison it with a layered air-defense system.

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Can the JASDF use the airfield?

“In 1971, a year before Okinawa’s reversion from the United States to Japan, the Japanese government and the then-government of the Ryukyu Islands concluded a memorandum of understanding stating that the airport would not be used for purposes other than civil aviation.

The central government also exchanged a confirmation note to that effect with then-Okinawa Gov. Junji Nishime.

Based on those documents, some government officials say it would be difficult for the SDF to use the airport. But in 2004, the central government fudged its stance in a written reply to questions posed in the Diet, saying “it is not that the use of (Shimojijima Airport) for pilot training and by aircraft other than commercial planes is not permitted.””

Awkwardly worded, but it gets the point across. It will be curious to see if Okinawa Governor Nakaima wants to make a fight out of it.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch