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Everything Going Wrong in Okinawa

On 23 February 2016 Admiral Harry Harris, then Commander US Forces Pacific, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was asked how the construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility was progressing. This refers to the super airbase the Japanese Defense Ministry is building at Henoko in northern Okinawa to house the units of the First Marine Air Wing now deployed at Futenma Air Station, in crowded central Okinawa.

Admiral Harris, his voice betraying irritation, replied, ”it’s . . . a little over two years late. It was going to be done by 2023, now we’re looking at 2025 . . . “

This made the front pages in Okinawa, though probably nowhere else. The next day Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, was asked about this at a press conference. He wanted to say Admiral Harris was wrong, but attempted to put it more diplomatically: “It’s too early to say”, – which amounts to the same thing.

Harris was indeed wrong, but not in the way Suga wanted his listeners to believe. A year before this, in 2015, the Okinawa Defense Bureau, the Defense Ministry’s branch in Okinawa, completed a report stating that their soil tests of the sea bottom of Oura Bay, scheduled to be filled to support the new airstrips, had yielded an N-value of zero. N-value is derived by dropping a 140 pound hammer on a hollow drill resting on the sea bottom. The number of blows required to drive it down six inches is the N-value. Thirty or more is considered a firm base. Zero means no blows were required; the drill sank of its own weight.

This information was kept from the Okinawan Government and public for two years, until an independent engineer managed to obtain a copy of the report. Judging from Admiral Harris’ statement, the information had also been kept from the US, and had not been taken into account in Harris’ (as we now know, wildly optimistic) “two years”. Before anything can be built on the “mayonnaise sea bottom”, as it is popularly known in Okinawa, it must be firmed up. The preferred way to do this is by implanting “sand piles” (pillars) into the slime. Huge hollow drills filled with sand are driven down until they reach bedrock. The drills are raised, the sand is left behind. The Okinawa Defense Bureau estimates that if this operation is repeated 77,000 times, the sea bottom will be sufficiently firm to begin construction. This is expected to take as much as five years. That means that 2025, the year Harris predicted the base will be completed, will be the year the sand pillar operation will be completed and sea wall construction on Oura Bay can begin – if all goes well.

If all goes well – and if Murphy’s law ceases to operate (Murphy’s law, If there is anything that could go wrong, it will).

But from the standpoint of the Okinawa Defense Bureau, everything is going wrong. First of all, they have failed to persuade (or to force) the Okinawans to give up their opposition to the new base, which they see as a danger, an environmental catastrophe and an insult. From the Governor’s office through the Prefectural Assembly through Okinawa’s two newspapers down to the daily sit-ins at various points where trucks can be blocked, from every direction, and using every non-violent tactic, including lawsuits, construction is being slowed. Then there is the fact that the site is surrounded by dozens of structures that violate FAA and DOD height regulations for airports. Then there are the two earthquake faults beneath the site, which the Defense Bureau has addressed by going into denial.

But it is on Oura Bay where Murphy’s law is doing the most damage. The Okinawa Defense Bureau’s soil tests have shown that in some places the mayonnaise sea bottom extends to 90 meters below sea level. Sand pillar implantation to 90 meters has never been attempted in Japan (some say, never in the world), nor do rigs exist capable of drilling to that depth. It’s not clear how the Okinawa Defense Bureau plans to deal with that – unless the comment by a government official that “maybe 60 meters will be good enough” can be considered a plan.

Until recently US government officials have avoided commenting on the problems plaguing the Futenma Replacement Facility project, saying, Japan is paying for it; it’s Japan’s problem. But that may be changing. This year’s Senate version of the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act contains a section (Section 1255) that would require DOD, in cooperation with the General Accountability Office (GAO), to do a full-fledged review of the project.

Let’s hope they carry out this review with the proper severity of a Marine Corps barracks inspection. They’ll need more than one pair of white gloves.

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