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The Defense Ministry is thinking of stationing F-15 fighter jets at a remote airport halfway from Naha to Taiwan to speed up its response to airspace incursions by China near the disputed Senkaku Islands, government sources said Monday.

The planes would be stationed on Shimojijima Island, which is much closer to the Japan-administered Senkakus, which China claims as the Diaoyu, than to Okinawa’s prefectural capital Naha, where the Air Self-Defense Force’s F-15s are based.

But since Shimojijima Airport is not equipped for military use, the ministry would have to make several modifications before shifting the fighters over from Okinawa Island, the sources said. The island is right next to better known Miyakojima Island.

In mid-December, when a Chinese government plane entered Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the ASDF scrambled eight F-15 jets from the base in Naha. By the time they got near the disputed islands, however, the plane in question had left.

On Jan. 5, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Defense Ministry officials to strengthen Japan’s border security measures.

Naha Air Base is about 420 km away from the Senkakus, which means it takes around 15 to 20 minutes for an F-15 to get there after an emergency takeoff.

Shimojijima Airport, which is administered by the Okinawa Prefectural Government, is about 190 km southeast of the Senkakus and has a 3,000-meter-long runway.

In 1971, a year before Okinawa’s reversion from the United States to Japan, the Japanese government and the then-government of the Ryukyu Islands concluded a memorandum of understanding stating that the airport would not be used for purposes other than civil aviation.

The central government also exchanged a confirmation note to that effect with then-Okinawa Gov. Junji Nishime.

Based on those documents, some government officials say it would be difficult for the SDF to use the airport. But in 2004, the central government fudged its stance in a written reply to questions posed in the Diet, saying “it is not that the use of (Shimojijima Airport) for pilot training and by aircraft other than commercial planes is not permitted.”

The Japanese and U.S. governments consider the airport a potential base for disaster relief for contingencies in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Japan Times:     Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013

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