Pillar of Sand in Okinawa

On 23 June, the House Subcommittee on Readiness passed its draft of H.R. 6395, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY21. It included the following words:

[T]he committee directs the Secretary of Defense to provide a report to the House Committee on Armed Services, not later than December 1, 2020, on the Futenma Replacement Facility.

The “Futenma Replacement Facility” refers to the massive construction project to transform the US Marines’ Camp Schwab, at Henoko in northern Okinawa, into an airbase capable of receiving the 1st Marine Air Wing units presently located in the obsolete and dangerous Futenma Airbase, in the middle of Ginowan City. Most Okinawans, including the Prefectural Government, adamantly oppose this new construction, and want the 1st Marine Air Wing units out of Okinawa. They have many reasons, some of which the US military and Department of Defense are practiced at ignoring. But other issues have emerged that the DoD, even at its most self-interested , needs to concern itself with.

These are the issues that the Subcommittee on Readiness mainly focused on. Here I will discuss only one: given construction delays, it will be decades before the Henoko facility will make any contribution to US military strategy; possibly it never will, and even if completed it will be flawed.

The airstrip is to be built by reclaiming the sea at Cape Henoko. On the northern side of the Cape, which is Oura Bay, there is a 50-meter deep trench, evidence of an active earthquake fault. Tests show that the soil in this trench has an N-value of zero, about the consistency of mayonnaise.

As Murphy’s Law states, “If there is anything that can go wrong, it will”. The Japanese government’s Okinawa Defense Bureau, which oversees the construction, has experienced the full brunt of this law. They had planned to build a seawall of concrete caissons to surround the area to be filled, but they have had to abandon this plan: caissons dropped onto mayonnaise would simply sink out of sight. This delays the construction schedule. But they kept this fact, as well as the mayonnaise sea bottom, secret for two years, both from the Okinawans and from the US government. This led to such embarrassments as Admiral Harry Harris, then Commander US Forces, Pacific, reporting to the Congress on 23 February, 2016, that the completion date was to be moved back two years, from 2023 to 2025, while the Japanese Government knew (but wasn’t telling) that it could not be finished until the mid-2030s at the earliest.

When asked by a news reporter why the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of NDAA FY2021 contained no language similar to that of the House version, Chairman James Mountain Inhofe replied that the Futenma Replacement Facility is the “pillar” of the DoD plan for redistributing US military forces in the Asia-Pacific. What a wonderfully evocative choice of words! The Okinawa Defense Bureau’s present plan to solidify the sea bottom is to drill 71,000 (seventy one thousand) holes in the slime and fill them with sand, hoping that these 71,000 “sand pillars” will firm up the sea bottom enough to support a concrete airstrip. The officials point out that this has been done before, for example at Osaka’s Kansai International. When critics mention that Kansai International is notoriously sinking, they answer that this causes no big problem (At Kansai International the Terminal Building is kept level with hydraulic jacks and the tarmac is asphalt so cracks can be quickly smoothed over).

But there’s another problem (Murphy’s Law never sleeps). Soil tests show that the mayonnaise-like goo continues to a depth of 90 meters below sea level, but the sand-pillar operation has never been attempted to a level beyond 70 meters; no drill rigs exist anywhere with drills longer than 70 meters. Asked about this, Japanese Government officials give answers that, at least as reported in the newspapers, are not convincing. “Seventy meters ought to be enough;” etc.

So the Futenma Replacement Facility, considered by Senator Inhofe the “pillar” of US military strategy for the region, is to be a pillar of sand, or rather is to be sitting on top of 71,000 pillars of sand, in turn sitting on top of a massive pillar of slime. This to be completed, according to the Okinawa Defense Bureau, sometime in the mid-2030s (others say 2040s; still others, never).

It seems that the House Armed Services Committee agrees with Inhofe; at the beginning of July it dropped its Subcommittee’s call for a DoD review from the draft of NDAA FY21. However the Congress would be well advised to look into this matter, if not that way, then some other. Perhaps the House Readiness Subcommittee could do its own investigation (after all this new facility, first proposed in 1996, won’t be “ready” for a decade, maybe two). Its problems cannot be solved by arranging not to know about them.