Two images spring to mind when the word ‘Okinawa’ is mentioned, and they could not be more different. One is of a Pacific Island of beauty and wonder, sand kissed beaches and palm trees, the other of those sands saturated in the blood of the fallen from some of the most vicious fighting in World War Two.

The reality is somewhat different, the island certainly has beautiful beaches, a tropical climate and wonderful scenery, but it is a very built up area, with property and cities and the island is close to the edge of being very close to over-population. And it is also a massive military installation in its own right, not just with the famous US air bases, but littered with docks, storage areas and other military establishments seemingly every few miles.

Pixelsnipers visited Okinawa to provide the following photo report on the three main air bases – Naha, Kadena and Futenma

Okinawa – A Modern History

Okinawa has a rich history, coupled with famous flora and fauna, but this would require it’s own article, if not a few books! So to establish why the military aircraft are stationed here it’s best to look at what has happened to the Island since the end of World War Two.

Situated 400 miles south of the Japanese Mainland, Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu (Known as Nansei) Islands, covering an area of 463.72 square miles with a population of nearly 1.4 million people. The position of this island may have something to do with the Okinawaians being amongst the longest lived in the world, with 34 centenarians per 100,000 people being three times more than the mainland.

With the Potsdam Declaration being signed on August 15th 1945, ending World War Two, the Nansei Islands, including Okinawa, were put under US military rule. The USA (United States of America) realised the strategic importance of Okinawa very quickly as the spread of communism in the region intensified after the end of the war and by 1949 a economic reconstruction and democratic Government were put in place. This came to a head in 1950 with the establishment of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR), though overall control was still from the US military.

The Japanese mainland regained independence from the United States in 1951 but Okinawa remained under US authority due to its strategic location on the frontline of the Cold War against the communist states of China, North Korea and the Soviet Union. Thus in 1953 the US Civil Administration established land expropriations in support of strengthening of the bases, though this was less than popular with the local population due to the amount of land requisitions. On May 15th 1972 Okinawa returned under Japanese control, but the importance to the island to American Strategic thinking is still very clear, Okinawa occupies only 1% of the land area of Japan but is the location of 75% of US military bases stationed there. the statistics speak for themselves – 38,000 military personnel, 43,000 dependents and 5,000 Department of Defence civilian employees.

Naha – Japans contribution

Before we look at the two main US air stations its worth a look at the Japanese air station at Naha, the capital of Okinawa with a population of nearly 315,000. The main airport into the heavily populated island and with Okinawa’s role as a holiday destination makes this airfield extremely busy. Even though a second runway is now being built the airport has a single runway of 3,000 metre (9,843ft) length and handles nearly 15 million passengers a year, averaging 150 flights a day. The airport began life in 1933 as Oruku naval air base, then in 1936, after it was transferred to the Japanese ministry of Communications, was renamed Naha Airfield. Another change in 1942 during World War Two bought the airfield back under naval control, so it reverted back to its original name. Captured by the Americans during the Battle of Okinawa on April 1st 1945 it became a major United states Air Force (USAF) base until they left the base on 31st May 1971. The base had already operated jointly as a civil airport since 1954 and now under full Japanese control both civil and military use expanded at Naha.

Before we go through the units a quick glossary of the Japanese words used to explain the units would be helpful;

Nansei Shien Hikohan – South West Support Unit
Kokutai – Air Wing
Hikotai – Squadron
Hiko Keikai Kangshigun – South Western Aircraft Control and Warning Group
Herikoputa kuuyutai – Helicopter Airlift Corps
Naha Kyunantain – Naha Air Rescue Service

Known as Koku Jeitai Naha Kichi, the military air base at Naha Airport is under the control of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF – Koku Jieitai)) with other units from the Navy and Army.

The JASDF has three main units at Naha, the Koku Sotai/Nansei koku Konseidan has control of the Nansei Shien Hikohan equipped with the Kawasaki T-4 and 204 Hikotai/83 Kukutai operating the McDonnell Douglas F-15J/F-15DJ Eagle alongside some more T-4’s. The 304 Hikotai equipped with more F-15’s is in the process of moving to Naha, bringing the numbers of this legendary interceptor to a very high number.

The second JASDF unit is Koku Sotai/Keika kokutai controlling the Hiko Keika Kanshigun, a deployment unit from 603 Hikotai operating the Grumman E-2C Hawkeye.

Finally the Koku Shien Shudan controls the Koku Kyunandan which oversee’s the Naha Herikoputa Kuuytai with the Boeing CH-47J Chinnok and Naha Kyunantai with Sikorsky UH-60J helicopters’ and British Aerospace (BAe) U-125A’s.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF – kaijo Jieitai) has a large presence at Naha with the 5th Kokutai equipped with up to 15 P-3C Orions and the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF- Rikujo Jieitai) maintain 15 Hikotai on the base with Boeing CH-47JA Chinooks, UH-60J Blackhawks and Beech LR-2’s.

Other para-military units are the Japanese Coastguard with Dash 8-315Q patrol aircraft supported by a Falcon 900 and AgustaWestland AW-139’s alongside the Okinawa Prefectural Police with AgustaWestland A-109’s.

Kadena Air Base

Known to the US military as the ‘Keystone of the Pacific’, Kadena is the largest USAF installation in the Pacific region and also home to the USAF largest wing, namely the 18th Wing, which as well as Air Force units encompasses elements of the US Army and US Navy which form ‘Team Kadena’

The numbers are impressive, 7,500 active military members and the base population exceeds 20,000 when you include the military, DOD personnel, families and civilian contractors. The base covers 4,930 acres with two parallel 12,100 ft (3,690m) runways. Added to the base acreage is a 6,280 acre munitions storage area making a total of over 11,000 acres that make up Kadena. In this complex are more than a 1,000 industrial buildings, 1,550 housing related structures, 15 Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) and 25 security revetments. All this contributes over 700 million dollars to the local economy.

The following are the subject of this part of the article, being the Air Component amongst the myriad of units stationed here;

18th Operations Wing
44th Fighter Squadron (FS) – McDonnell Douglas F-15C/D Eagle
67th Fighter Squadron – McDonnell Douglas F-15C/D Eagle
909th Air Refuelling Squadron (ARS) – Boeing KC-135R/T Stratotanker
961st Airborne Air Control Squadron (AACS) – E3B/C Sentry
33rd Rescue Squadron (RQS) – HH-60G Pave Hawk
353rd Special Operations Group
1st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) – Lockheed MC-130H Combat Talon
17th Special Operations Squadron – Lockheed MC-130P Combat Shadow*

*Now in the process of re-equipping with MC-130J Commando II

82nd Reconnaissance Squadron

Equipped as and when by deployed 55th Wing Boeing RC-135’s of various marks

United States Navy

Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 1 – Various marks of Lockheed P-3 Orion deployed from the USA

Other units

United States Marine Corps (USMC), USAF Air Combat Command and US Navy units are on regular deployment, at the time of Pixelsnipers visit the following units were detached to Kadena;

Lockheed P-3C Orion – VP-46, US Navy
Lockheed EP-3E Aries III – VQ-1, US Navy
Boeing P-8A Poseidon – VP-16, US Navy
McDonnell Douglas/BAe AV-8B Harrier II – VMA-233, USMC
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet – VMFA-232, USMC

Also the US Army at Kadena has regular support from 52nd Aviation Regiment Cessna UC-35A Citations and Beech C-12F king Airs.

Kadena History

The Japanese built a small airfield near the village of Kadena during World war Two. This was captured by the Americans during the invasion on April 1st 1945. The first American unit to be based at Kadena was the 316th Bombardment Wing which arrived in August 1945 equipped with Boeing B-29A Superfortress bombers. On the 9th August 1945 the B-29 named ‘Bockscar’ landed to refuel at Kadena on the way to drop the atomic bomb ‘Fat man’ on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Even though the Japanese Government surrendered to the allies on the 14th August 1945 the Japanese on Okinawa did not officially sign the surrender document until September 7th, in a ceremony at a place which is known as Stearley Heights on the Kadena Air Base complex.

During the Korean War from 1950, several units of Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers were based at Kadena, staying for the duration until replaced by Fighter-bomber units of North American F-86 Sabrejets, which in turn created the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing (FBW) of three squadrons – the 12th FBS, 44th FBS and 67th FBS, the latter two units still based at Kadena.

A new role for Kadena occurred in August 1956, fast Jet Reconnaissance. Republic RF-84F Thunderstreak from the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Yokota AB on the mainland , arrived at Kadena . Two years later these were replaced by the legendary McDonnell Douglas RF-101C Voodoo. The unit stayed at Kadena until 1989, by then equipped with McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom II’s.

Kadena hit the news in May 1981, but in a positive way, when nearby Naha Airport was hit by severe fog. Eleven Japanese airliners managed to land at Kadena, and the help given by base personnel to facilitating the event adhered them to the local population.

After USAF re-organisation in 1991, Kadena ceased being a Fighter Wing when the base greatly expanded its mission. Alongside the fighters came Boeing KC-135’s of the 909th ARS and E-3 Sentries of the 961st AWCS (Now AACS). This necessitated a change, so the wing became known as the 18th Wing, to better explain the diverse role it was now playing.

April 2001 saw Kadena hit newsstands around the world, when a detached EP-3E Aries II from the base collided with a Chinese Shenyang J-8IM after being intercepted on a mission near China. The Chinese jet, flown by Lieutenant Commander (Lt.Cdr) Wang crashed with the loss of the pilot, the EP-3E with twenty four crew had to land on Hainan Island, where they were detained for 11 days.

Kadena is also an important staging point for humanitarian and disaster relief operations such as the Tsunami that hit Asia in 2004 to the mudslides that hit the Philippines in 2006, amongst others.

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma

Part of the Marine Corps Instillations Pacific Command (MCIPC) and also part of Camp S. D. Butler complex, Futenma is located in the city of Ginowan (pop 93,661) and is tasked with operating a variety of fixed wing, rotary and tilt-rotor aircraft in support of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), it is also used as a United Nations (UN) air distribution hub.

The base population consists of approximately 3,000 marines and other associated personnel of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), it is used for training and providing air support for other land and sea based marines in Okinawa and the surrounding Asia-Pacific region.

Base facilities include a single 8,990ft (2,740m) runway which has the ability to handle the largest military and commercial aircraft in any inventory on the planet as well as extensive barracks, logistical and administrative buildings. The elevation above sea level at Futenma, 246ft (75m), makes it an ideal safe and effective location to provide disaster relief and assistance in the event of a tsunami which would leave Naha International Airport and surrounding areas inoperable.

Units serving at MCAS Futenma are;

Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 1

Equipped with Beechcraft UC-12F Huron and Cessna UC-35D Citation

Marine Air Group 36

Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron 262 (VMM-262) – Bell/Boeing MV-22B Osprey
Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron 265 (VMM-265) – Bell/Boeing MV-22B Osprey
Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 (VMGR-152) Lockheed KC-130J Hercules*

*moved from MCAS Futenma to MCAS Iwakuni as of July 2014

Other Units

There is a Unit Deployment Program (UDP) which sees regular visitors from other squadrons, usually Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadrons flying the UH-1Y Venom and
AH-1W Super Cobra plus Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadrons flying the CH-53E Super Stallion

Futenma History

Futenma airfield was built on the ruins of five different villages by the US military in 1945, initially with the thought of using B-29 Superfortess’ for a planned invasion of Japan, but with the war ending Fitenma became a support field for nearby Kadena Air Base. Then with a change of hands the station was transferred to the US Navy on 30th June 1957 which lead to it finally becoming a Marine Corps Air Station.

August 2004 saw a CH-53D suffer mechanical issues and land heavily on the campus of Okinawa International University injuring three crew members, nobody was hurt on the ground but this has brought up questions about the safety of having a base situated in the middle of Ginowan City, with the rapid population growth over the years it has meant that the city has enveloped the base and is slowly encroaching ever closer to the fence. There has been talk of relocation from Ginowan but still to this day nothing has materialised.