Bill may complicate planned Camp Schwab airstrip
By Leo Shane III and David Allen
Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Sunday, June 28, 2009
The House version of the Fiscal 2010 Defense Authorization Bill could hamper plans to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa with a new airstrip on Camp Schwab.
Under the bill, the Defense Department "may not accept … a replacement facility in Okinawa (for Futenma) unless the Secretary certifies to the congressional defense committees that the replacement facility satisfies at least minimum Naval Aviation Safety requirements."
The language was prompted by concerns raised by Naval Air Systems Command about hazards surrounding the new airstrip location, including utility poles in the proposed flight path, a nearby school and the planned V-shaped runway into Oura Bay, said Dave Helfert, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The bill allows for safety improvements to be made at Camp Schwab to make it an acceptable replacement for Futenma, Helfert said.
The House approved its version of the authorization bill with the Futenma language Thursday, by a 389-22 vote.
However, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a statement Thursday citing concern that the clause would "limit the Secretary’s authority to exercise reasonable judgment regarding airfield operations."
"The current FRF (Futenma Replacement Facility) configuration was agreed to during bilateral negotiations with the government of Japan, and this provision places the resulting International Agreement at risk," the office stated.
A Pentagon spokesman echoed the White House concerns.
"There have been public reports in the U.S. pertaining to safety issues with the Futenma replacement plan," the spokesman said Thursday.
"There are processes in place to address these concerns without making changes to the agreement itself. Moving a runway or reconfiguring a facility would be examples of major changes that the U.S. would not support."
Madeleine Z. Bordallo, the House delegate from Guam, said House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., raised concerns about the design of the facility. But, she said, the language in the bill is not mean to scuttle the far-reaching realignment plans.
"The continued commitment to the military build-up on Guam is evident in the significant military construction funding for Guam in the bill," Bordallo said. "The issue of the Futenma Replacement Facility is a provision that the committee leadership will continue to address in conference committee with the Department of Defense."
Japanese officials Thursday said the clause flies in the face of a bilateral plan to replace the air station, close U.S. military bases south of Camp Foster, and to transfer some 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam in 2014.
The plan is part of a well-thought-out agreement made by both governments, said a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defense.
"The plan was not made by a suggestion from one side, but it was a fruit of discussions and studies from various aspects by both governments," she said.
Japanese opposition parties and some Okinawa officials have serious concerns about the safety of the current plan. Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has demanded the runways be placed farther offshore.
The 2010 appropriations bill allots $934 million for defense projects on Guam for the coming year. That’s just the start of some $4 billion the U.S. plans to spend to build housing and other infrastructure for the move of Marines, including several major Marine commands now based on Okinawa.
The total cost of relocation has been budgeted at $10.27 billion, with Japan paying $6.07 billion, or 59 percent.
But replacing MCAS Futenma has always been a sticking point. The United States and Japan have been searching for a way to replace the air station ever since they signed an agreement in 1996 for the return of some 21 percent of the land on Okinawa used by the U.S. military.
A spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Defense said he was aware of the clause in the authorization bill, but was hopeful the realignment plan would move forward as planned.
"It has been affirmed by Prime Minister Aso and President Obama that both countries would steadily carry out realignment plans according to the road map, which both governments agreed to in 2006, including facility relocation and closure of the Futenma air station facility," he said.
"Also, it is stipulated in a pact signed by both governments, an international promise, that both governments have an intention to complete the replacement facility," he said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Chiyomi Sumida and Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.