TOKYO, June 23 ------ U.S. forces have increased their activities in and around Okinawa Prefecture, with military drills being conducted frequently at bases in Kadena and neighboring municipalities in the prefecture, which has the largest presence of U.S. forces in the Far East.
The United States appears to be trying to improve the deployment capabilities of its forces in East Asia as part of efforts possibly aimed at deterring China and North Korea, amid a worsening security environment since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the first half of June, fighters based outside the United States’ Kadena Air Base were involved in drills at the facility, taking off and landing repeatedly. According to the Japanese Defense Ministry, 32 planes, including state-of-the-art F-22s, were confirmed to be at the base on June 1-2, and about 20 warplanes were parked at the facility until June 15. According to the Kadena municipal government, it is the first time since 2007 that more than 30 warplanes based outside the facility have been spotted at the site.
Some of the U.S. fighters were from USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier based at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture. The aircraft carrier had been involved in activities in areas around Okinawa Prefecture. Information-gathering aircraft, including an RC-135 Cobra Ball which is capable of detecting ballistic missiles, have frequently been spotted at the air base. Such aircraft are thought to be involved in surveillance of areas around the Korean Peninsula and nearby seas. On June 18, a U.S. CH53E transport helicopter conducted an emergency landing on a farm near Cape Hedo in Kunigami, Okinawa Prefecture. According to the Japanese Defense Ministry, U.S. aircraft have conducted four emergency landings in the past six months — the same number as the U.S. military had in all of last year. “It reflects the fact that [U.S. forces] have been conducting drills more frequently,” a Defense Ministry official said.
The U.S. military had cut back on regular exercises at its Naha Port Facility in Okinawa’s capital because the port is close to residential areas. But in February, U.S. Marines conducted a drill at the facility and in June, three Ospreys flew to the port. The U.S. military is thought to be trying to better utilize the port because it would be an important logistic site for the transportation of military supplies in the event of an emergency situation erupting in Taiwan. The Japanese government has expressed understanding about the U.S. military’s activities. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the U.S. forces “are conducting important activities for maintaining and improving their operational readiness and skill levels.” However, local residents have voiced objections about noise pollution among other issues.
On June 16, a group comprising representatives of three municipalities around the Kadena Air Base submitted a letter of protest to the Okinawa Defense Bureau and other related authorities in which they demanded a halt to the arrival of military aircraft from outside the facility. On June 20, the Kunigami municipal government lodged a protest about emergency landings, warning of the possibility of a disastrous accident.