Defending Japan: The Mageshima Rorschach test

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Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a former US diplomat. He is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
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Japanese defense initiatives can seem like Rorschach tests – meaning very different things to different people.  Take Tokyo’s recent announcement that it will buy Mageshima – a tiny island off Kyushu in southern Japan.  The plan is to build an air station so the U.S. Navy and Marines can conduct simulated aircraft carrier landings – known as Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP).

To some observers, Mageshima shows Japan’s determination to defend its southern islands from Chinese encroachment.  Others note Mageshima is an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and disperses forces that are dangerously vulnerable to PLA missile attacks.  And most importantly, it is Tokyo’s good faith effort to spend money to make life easier for U.S. forces in Japan.

Perhaps.  But others see the Rorschach “blob” that is Mageshima rather differently.

Mageshima does of course have its uses.  Another JSDF base “down south” adds operational flexibility.  But the dispersal benefits are less than meets the eye.  The PLA’s Rocket Force can presumably just re-target a few missiles and hammer the island when the time comes.

Regardless, the main reason for Mageshima is that the U.S. Navy and Marines need a better place to practice carrier landings.  So Tokyo sealing the deal must be a good thing?  One would like to think so.

The Japanese government in fact promised many years ago to find a replacement so U.S. pilots don’t have to keep flying to Iwo To (Iwo Jima) – 700 miles over open ocean – so they can practice.  That’s tiring and dangerous, but they’ll be doing it for a lot longer.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the Mageshima facility will be built “at an early date.”

However, one probably shouldn’t take Suga literally given Tokyo’s performance building the replacement for Futenma Marine Corps Station on Okinawa.  It was promised in 1997 and allegedly will be completed in the early 2030’s.

So it is better than even odds that a U.S. Navy or Marine pilot could get their aviator wings at Pensacola today and retire before landing on Mageshima.

Hopefully U.S. alliance managers got Mr. Suga to at least commit to a specific decade.

One American observer who spent many years at the “mine face” of U.S.-Japan defense relations commented:
“It is a shame that, for 25+ years, GOJ has been forcing Carrier Air Wing-5 pilots to take-on the risk of doing (landings) at a place like Iwo To, which has no emergency divert airfield. That situation would be a “no-no” for naval aviators who do FCLP [re]qualifications back in CONUS).”
He added:
“These same pilots will be expected to defend Japan and take care of business with North Korea and others.”

So getting the FCLP relocation from “promise-to-completion” might take the better part of a half-century.  Of course, when Japan demands American help against an enemy in the not so distant future they will expect it “immediately.”  Not “at an early date.”

A money-laundering platform?

A cynic – or someone with experience in Japan – might suggest that beyond just an airbase, Mageshima is equally useful as a money-laundering platform for spreading money around among ‘the boys.’  The nearly $150 million Tokyo is spending to buy Mageshima from its owner – a shadowy Tokyo-based development company – is just a down payment.

The actual construction will cost a fortune — and this from a Japanese government that claims it hasn’t got five cents more for U.S. forces – or to raise pay for its own troops and make service in the JSDF an attractive profession.  A figure hasn’t been announced, but one might hazard a guess based on the Okinawa Futenma replacement project.  That project is estimated at $20 billion for just a small airfield on reclaimed land.

Any improvements to Japan’s national defense are nowhere near the amount of money poured into the project.  One expects something similar with Mageshima.

The observer quoted earlier noted:

“Construction on Mageshima is going to be a bitch (expensive, “cha-ching” for the construction companies) …. all needs to start with building a port (not cheap) and then bringing in pretty much all of the building materials by ships …. lack of water means they will have to copy Iwo Jima and make a large underground reservoir to catch rain water run-off from the runway & elsewhere….”

Japanese construction projects are not exactly case studies in financial rectitude.  Even less so when Tokyo (better said, Japanese taxpayers) foot the bill.  Mageshima’s price reportedly went up $100 million before the current owner agreed to the deal.  The extra money Tokyo is handing over is apparently compensation for the owner’s improvements to the island. Mageshima is a tiny, uninhabited place – about 3 square miles – so one presumes the improvements included plating the island in gold.

Here’s an idea for the government of Japan (GOJ): Just so everyone knows the deal is on the up and up, perhaps the National Police Agency and Ministry of Finance should investigate thoroughly and issue public reports on all parties involved in the Mageshima deal – and where every cent is going, and how figures are calculated.

Tokyo certainly wouldn’t want Yakuza and corrupt government officials (or former officials) and politicians involved.  Indeed, it would be ironic that while the Tokyo cops pressure bar owners in the Kabukicho entertainment district to stop paying local gangsters $200 month in protection money – GOJ is shoveling millions (if not billions) – to the same crowd.

Of course, Mageshima getting this sort of scrutiny is as likely as Prime Minister Abe announcing he found a copy of the shredded guest list to the annual “Cherry Blossom Viewing Party” that his opponents want to see – and will be releasing it.

It’s not as if Mageshima was inevitable. There were better and faster alternatives.

According to one former U.S. official: “The real FCLP solution will be to build a megafloat-based floating runway offshore from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.  The technology works, and all kinds of fixed- and rotary-wing training could be done on such a facility — located within visual distance of Iwakuni’s main runway.

He added:

However, Ministry of Defense (MOD) facilities and construction bureaucrats are tied-in to the General Construction companies (and the sorts of people who inhabit that ecosystem).  A megafloat runway would be produced by shipbuilding and steel companies, so the connections to MOD are weak.

So when it comes to Mageshima it’s hard to discern any improvement to Japan’s defense capabilities for the foreseeable future – or help for U.S. forces trying to prepare to defend Japan.

Indeed, this FCLP quarter-century brush off (so far) by Japanese officialdom highlights a troubling fact, that owing to inadequate training facilities in Japan, American forces have to leave Japan, or at least fly to its far reaches, so they can defend Japan.  Go figure.

But show the Mageshima Rohrshach blob to the construction companies and everyone looking for a piece of the action in GOJ-funded defense construction projects, and the blob looks exactly like a giant “Yen” sign.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and was the Marine Attaché in Tokyo as well as the first Marine LNO to the Japanese Self Defense Force.

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