U.S. military transfers 1st air tanker to Iwakuni from Okinawa

Two U.S. military KC-130 air refueling tankers arrived Tuesday at the Iwakuni base in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi in the first transfer under a bilateral agreement to reduce the disproportionate burden on Okinawa of hosting U.S. bases.

The long-delayed transfer will bring a total of 15 KC-130s to Iwakuni by the end of August, along with approximately 870 U.S. military personnel and their family members, according to the U.S. Marine Corps Iwakuni air base. It is the first time that U.S. troops have been moved from Okinawa to another area in Japan.

The U.S. military has said it will fly the KC-130 based in Iwakuni to Okinawa to conduct exercises as coordination with U.S. Marine ground troops there is necessary, throwing into question how much the latest step will help reduce the burden of the military presence on Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to cut Okinawa's burden and pledged financial support, while ensuring a replacement facility will be built to relocate a key U.S. military base within the southern island prefecture despite staunch opposition by many local people to keeping the base there.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the KC-130 transfer is "proof that Okinawa's burden has been steadily reduced," telling reporters that Tokyo will continue to make further efforts.

Located around 300 kilometers from South Korea's Busan, the Iwakuni base is considered strategically important given the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

Currently, a total of 53 military aircraft, including FA-18 Hornets, are deployed at Iwakuni, with 59 carrier-based aircraft to be moved there from the U.S. Navy's Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo around 2017.

Including the first batch of 12 Ospreys that arrived in Iwakuni in 2012 before their deployment to the Marines' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, the U.S. military in Japan now operates 24 of the tilt-rotor aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter, and cruise like an airplane.

One of the MV-22 Ospreys flew to Atsugi on Tuesday to transport U.S. military personnel, the first flight to the Tokyo metropolitan area, before heading to Camp Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture, west of Tokyo.

The city mayors of Ayase and Yamato, which host the Atsugi base, had urged the U.S. military to cancel the flight, citing safety concerns. Outside the base, antimilitary civic groups protested at the first arrival of the Osprey and monitored noise.

To reduce training in Okinawa, Abe has said the government will call on the United States to conduct half of the exercises using the Ospreys outside the prefecture.

Two Ospreys that will be displayed at an aviation event in Hokkaido are expected to stop at the Yokota Air Base in Tokyo on Saturday for refueling.

Tokyo and Washington agreed on the transfer of the KC-130s in 1996, a year after antimilitary sentiment spiked due to the rape of a schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa.

The Iwakuni city government has repeatedly said the transfer of the KC-130s and the relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa should be packaged, if Japan and the United States are to relieve some of the burden on Okinawa Prefecture.

The local government in Iwakuni decided to accept the KC-130 transfer just a week before Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the start of landfill work in late December, a step necessary to move Futenma to a less-populated area.