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International relations

China's rise reveals Iwo Jima's flaws as US Navy practice site

Navy urges Japan to bring pilot training drills closer to country's main islands

A pilot in an F/A-18 Super Hornet from the USS Ronald Reagan conducts a touch-and-go drill on Iwo Jima on May 17.   © Jiji Press

IWO JIMA, Japan -- The U.S. Navy is urging Japan to relocate its pilot training site from this Western Pacific island immortalized by one of World War II's bloodiest battles, as it reorganizes to meet a 21st century military challenge from China.

For almost three decades, U.S. Navy pilots have brushed up their landing skills on this far-flung island, which has no civilian homes for the trainees to worry about. Landing practice can be a noisy business. But having to fly nearly 1,400 km over the ocean for a practice session is a serious drawback. The uneven runway also suffers from volcanic activity.

Indeed, Iwo Jima's airstrip, operated by Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force, is part of a temporary training facility. Pilots of the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier based in Japan, conducted their latest field carrier landing practice, or FCLP, on it from May 9 to May 19.

"We talk to the U.S. Forces Japan. We talked to our government counterparts. Having a permanent FCLP facility is the No. 1 talking point," said Captain Dwight Clemons, operations officer for U.S. Naval Forces Japan.

The nuclear-powered Ronald Reagan is the centerpiece of the Seventh Fleet, the U.S.'s only permanently forward-deployed aircraft carrier, loaded with about 70 aircraft, including F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets.

National security is expected to top the agenda of next week's meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Monday. Trump will arrive in Japan on Saturday and meet with Emperor Naruhito, the first foreign leader to meet the newly enthroned emperor.

Trump has been urging his country's security partners to take greater responsibility for their own defense, as the Republican president balks at the cost of maintaining forces around the world.

Washington also needs to deal with other security challenges, most notably from China, which is now projecting its own power overseas. The U.S. and Japan are concerned that China's naval expansion has a purpose other than protecting the country's maritime transport routes -- to drive the U.S. Navy out of the Western Pacific.

China's unilateral seizure of contested islands in the South China Sea has unnerved the international community.

Captain Clemons emphasized that the forward deployment saves the battle group as many as three weeks in arriving at a theater on the other side of the planet from the U.S. mainland.

"The Carrier Air Wing being fully deployed like it is now gives you a forward-deployed response, ready to go on a moments' notice," he said. "This is a strategic message."

Discussions are underway to create an alternative practice facility on the island of Mageshima, off the coast of Kyushu, one of Japan's four main islands. Clemons said Mageshima would provide a much safer training environment.

It would also be useful for Japan when it has its own aircraft carrier and starts putting its pilots through day and night carrier landing drills. Japan is currently considering whether to convert its largest helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers that could handle U.S.-built, short-takeoff and vertical landing F-35 fighters.

"If Japan introduces aircraft carriers, it will need to train pilots for landing on them," said Bonji Ohara, senior fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and a former naval pilot. "An uninhabited island is an ideal site for such training because there is no need to worry about causing noise pollution to local residents."

Trump is expected to visit the JS Kaga, one of the warships expected to be converted into an aircraft carrier. A sister ship, the Izumo, has recently set off for the Indian Ocean to demonstrate Japan's commitment to the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Aircraft carriers also project a military's capabilities and increase the chances of its survival after enemy strikes, Ohara said.

"By having Trump on the JS Kaga," he said, "Japan wants to send a message that it is taking on more responsibility for its own defense and the security of Northeast Asia."

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