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The Future of Yokota Air Base

Tokyo’s Third International Airport?

The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area is home to 35 million people— more than the entire population of Canada— and the megacity generates nearly $2 trillion of economic output each year. Yet despite its vast populace and economic influence, Tokyo is surprisingly underserved by civilian and business aviation. New York City, its nearest contemporary, has only 8 million people and is served by three major international airports; the much larger Tokyo metropolis struggles to make do with two.

Narita: The primary destination for international flights into Tokyo, Narita is inconveniently located. It can take travelers from 90-120 minutes to reach Tokyo proper, and up to three hours to reach its western expanses. The airport has also been criticized for excessively high landing fees.

A megacity’s limited options.

Haneda: Despite a superior location, only 30 minutes from city center, Haneda has struggled to tap international traffic. According to the Centre for Aviation, “…Haneda has primarily been a domestic airport”. Although international flights have been accepted recently, “…these are mainly at night and the early morning. Airlines have found these Haneda slots to be unpopular, as there are limited ground transportation options at those hours except for expensive taxis. The slots almost entirely prohibit connecting traffic”.

Both airports are quickly approaching maximum capacity; supply is increasingly unable to meet demand.

If the status quo holds, business growth may suffer. One recent study warns that “… the flow of general aviation flights from North America to Asia has gradually increased, but it is not coming to Tokyo and is largely bypassing Japan… Singapore and Shanghai have thrived as alternative regional business aviation hubs... Successful corporate executives need to come to Tokyo for face-to-face negotiations and to close deals on short notice, a practice currently stymied by capacity and regulatory barriers to corporate aviation”.

A Simmering Debate

In 1999, then-Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara set his sights on Yokota Air Base, a US Air Force installation on the western outskirts of Tokyo. Yokota’s appeal is clear— western Tokyo is woefully distant from the two existing international airports, and opening the base to civilian traffic could rebalance Tokyo aviation, increase flexibility for business aviation, and ease the burden on Haneda and Narita. After a high-profile visit, Ishihara became even more convinced that the base’s 3,350 meter runway, one of the longest in the entire country, should be shared under a dual use agreement.

(Center for a New American Security, 2012)

Such a transition would not come easily, however. Yokota is the American military’s Pacific air hub, and its squadron of C-130 Hercules provide both training and operational, logistical and support functions. Yokota’s Air Traffic Control dominates a massive swath of Japanese airspace, controlling the skies above Tokyo and the eight surrounding prefectures.

Yokota is also the nexus of US-Japan military cooperation. A pressurized underground tunnel links the headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan to the JASDF Air Defense Command, connecting to a basement command center from which Japanese and American officials coordinate Japan’s air and ballistic missile defense. Critics of dual use expressed concerns that civilian traffic would hinder Yokota’s military operations or limit its future availability.

Yokota Air Base. Upper-right structures are military family housing.

Undaunted, Ishihara pursued the issue,ultimately succeeding in pressing then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to raise dual use of Yokota with President Bush in 2003. Although the United States agreed to examine its feasibility, little tangible progress was made in the succeeding decade.

When Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games, the debate instantly revived. Ishihara’s protégé and successor, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose, immediately made clear his desire to offset the influx of Olympic visitors by opening Yokota to civilian flights. He argued that “…it’s an American military base, so if we are able to use it, there won’t be any construction costs”.

Conflicting Viewpoints

Three major studies illustrate both the advantages and obstacles surrounding any potential dual use initiative of Yokota. While their findings dash Governor Inose’s hopes for cost-free utilization— infrastructure upgrades would be essential to accommodate even modest civilian traffic to the base— they substantiate his belief that Yokota could help ease Tokyo’s aviation shortage.

(2004) Hudson InstituteA conservative American think-tank, Hudson highlights Yokota’s potential as a hub for business aviation. Although the necessary Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) facilities might be constructed for relatively little,the report warns that “…the U.S. military’s primary concern would be maintaining maximum flexibility and surplus capacity to handle extra demand in time of an emergency”. Given such concerns, and considering the limitations of the transportation infrastructure surrounding Yokota, the report concludes on a skeptical note.

(2012) Center for a New American Security CNAS, another influential American think-tank, built upon the findings of an earlier study by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA carefully analyzed technical data and flight simulations, ultimately concluding that “…there will be a definitive need for additional Tokyo runway capacity in the next 10 to 20 years and that deliberate planning should start now. Yokota Air Base has a long runway and space for potential facilities on- and off-base, making it the best option, with the greatest technical and economic potential for dual use”. CNAS added its own supportive notes, emphasizing the potential military advantages: the US would likely benefit from improved bilateral relations, greater access to other Japanese air facilities during a contingency, and Japan-funded improvements to base facilities. Rather than hindering military operations, CNAS portrays dual use as promoting the alliance’s growth and ultimately increasing military flexibility.

(2013) Tokyo Metropolitan Government Unsurprisingly, Tokyo’s government officials are strongly in favor of dual use: Yokota would alleviate Narita and Haneda capacity constraints, improve air access to west Tokyo, and increase the diversification of Tokyo’s aviation services. The report acknowledges potential noise complaints from local residents, but notes that passenger and business jets have a far smaller noise profile than the C-130s currently in use at Yokota.

Surmountable Obstacles

While each report offers its own unique perspective, all three accept Tokyo’s need for additional aviation capacity and the basic feasibility of dual use at Yokota Air Base. However, each report also acknowledges that significant planning must precede any actual operations; before dual use can become a reality, American and Japanese officials must overcome several obstacles.

Local Infrastructure— Poor transportation infrastructure in the area surrounding Yokota Air Base prevents significant commercial traffic from using the airstrip, but may not be an issue for business aviation. Helicopters provide quick and convenient transportation into central Tokyo, and while this capability is currently restricted to military officials visiting the US Embassy, it could someday extend to corporate executives landing at Yokota. Although the area surrounding the base is crowded and heavily developed, there is still ample room for growth. For example, immediately outside of the base perimeter is a small Tokyo-run customs office, with an even tinier Japanese immigration office. These facilities lie in the shadow of the massive, multistory building next door, an abandoned bowling arcade. Such real estate could easily be developed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to bolster their arguments for dual use of Yokota Air Base.

Base Infrastructure— While civilian flights land, disperse passengers, and promptly depart, business aviation requires storage facilities for aircraft that loiter while their passengers conduct business downtown. In fact, Yokota would require major facility upgrades before accommodating any meaningful nonmilitary traffic. The CNAS study lists “….improved runway and taxiways and expanded aprons, additional hangars and maintenance facilities, aircraft revetments and hardened hangars, underground fuel-storage tanks, additional firefighting capacity and equipment for handling cargo and passengers”, suggesting Japan incentivize dual use proposals by offering to fund base improvements. Security is also a concern for military planners, and existing dual use arrangements at other US bases in Japan could be studied and potentially emulated at Yokota. Future civilian traffic to Yokota could even be limited to US or Japanese airlines, if such steps were deemed necessary.

V-22 Osprey Vertical take-off and landing.

Military Operations— The impact on military operations may be less than anticipated. If local rumors are to be believed, Yokota will soon become home to up to 25 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. While it is unknown whether Ospreys would supplement or replace the ageing C-130, the introduction of aircraft with vertical-takeoff capabilities could raise arguments that Yokota’s lengthy runway is of limited military necessity. Yokota has also provided carrier-based aircraft with a training site and aerial refueling, but that need will diminish in the near future: the carrier air wing assigned to nearby Naval Air Facility Atsugi will be moving to far-off Iwakuni around 2017. With Yokota arguably underutilized even now, and Tokyo’s desperation sure to rise in years ahead, the US will find it increasingly difficult to rebuff calls for dual use.

Yokota International Airport?

Although Tokyo’s aviation demands continue to grow and only limited obstacles prevent dual use of Yokota, neither side appears to possess the political will to make progress. Governor Inose’s dream of Olympic guests landing at the base will inevitably be dashed, and since a serious desire to utilize Yokota for civilian traffic would have already prompted local infrastructure upgrades, his bold statements may have been mere political theater. Yet, while it is unlikely that Yokota will be able to process substantial civilian traffic before 2020, an eventual dual use arrangement seems nearly inevitable.

In fact, several trends point towards Japan reclaiming Yokota Air Base within the next 20 years, ultimately making the installation Tokyo’s third international airport.

First, concern towards Japanese public sentiment and an evolving Asia-Pacific security environment have prompted significant changes to the distribution of US forces in Japan. To mitigate vulnerability to the anti-access strategies of rival states, as well as the impact upon local communities, the US and Japan have worked towards a more decentralized, flexible force posture. As part of this realignment, Atsugi’s Carrier Air Wing is departing the Kanto region, diminishing Yokota’s need for extensive airspace control and relieving the base of several long-term mission functions. If V-22 Ospreys are indeed deployed to Yokota, then its long runway will increasingly be seen as an untapped resource of limited military necessity.

Japan’s gradual move towards military normalization will also lessen reliance upon US forces in years ahead. Although constitutional reform is unlikely, the Japanese Self Defense Forces continue to take a greater role in the security alliance. As force integration and bilateral operations move forward, US forces will increasingly utilize JSDF facilities and installations: increased activity at sites like Hyakuri Air Base could lessen both force’s dependence upon Yokota.

Civilian flights diverted to Yokota after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The most important trend to consider is sheer necessity. As the 2004 Hudson study warns, analysts predict “…a near doubling of the global fleet of passenger aircraft and the doubling, or even tripling, of revenue passenger-kilometers by 2022, with airlines of the Asia-Pacific region operating 60 percent of the world’s very large passenger aircraft fleet at that time”. Tokyo’s need for a third international airport is real and unavoidable, and “…should Japan’s economy begin to heat up again, the shortage of airport facilities may rapidly become critical”.

Alternatives to Yokota exist, but suffer from critical shortcomings: Ibaraki Airport is occasionally floated, but lies as far from Tokyo as Narita and would require its own infrastructure upgrades. An entirely new airport would be ideal, built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay perhaps, but the project would be enormously expensive and likely come too late. Quite simply, Yokota is the most logical and realistic choice to meet Tokyo’s growing aviation demand.

While unpredictable events like a geopolitical crisis could upend current trends and extend Yokota Air Base’s lifespan, the most likely black swan — a major earthquake striking the Kanto Plains — would actually strengthen dual use/retrocession arguments. Neighboring Tachikawa hosts facilities to host Japan’s entire central government in the event of a disaster, and such a relocation would cause Tokyo’s center of gravity to shift westward, increasing demand for a local airport exponentially.

Whether the time is measured in years or decades, economic necessity will inevitably overcome political inertia— at some point, calls for Yokota’s dual use will become impossible to ignore. Limited business aviation or an expanded JASDF role seem most likely as an intermediate step; dual use may not arrive in time for the Olympics, but cannot be postponed indefinitely. The American military presence will gradually evolve to accommodate new types of traffic, and local infrastructure will improve to accommodate it. In the long run, dual use of Yokota will be but one step in the road towards Tokyo’s ultimate goal of full retrocession.

While the American military presence at Yokota appears permanent from present day’s narrow view, similar perceptions presumably existed at other bases since lost to history. The capitals of Greece, Spain, and the Philippines each hosted an American military presence until the 1990s, and Japan will be but the latest nation to oppose a foreign military base in its capital. If full retrocession indeed becomes reality, long decades of American military service will be reduced to a footnote in the history of Yokota International Airport. Tokyo would find itself better equipped to compete with Singapore, Shanghai, and other regional business hubs, and the United States could ultimately benefit from a stronger, more equal alliance partner. In a serendipitous coincidence, Japan’s three international airports, Narita (成田), Haneda (羽田) and Yokota (横田), would even share the same kanji, a subtle link between the three corners of Tokyo’s aviation future.

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