YOKOSUKA, Japan– Last year was a difficult one for Navy forces forward deployed to Japan.
There were the two collisions involving Fitzgerald and John S. McCain. There was the grounding of a cruiser within sight of Fleet Activities Yokosuka that caused an oil spill. And there was the bizarre saga of an engineer who disappeared from the cruiser Shiloh for days, triggering a search and rescue that roped in the Japan Maritime Defense Force, only to be found hiding in the engine room. Collectively, the events were not only distressing, but also embarrassing for the Navy’s forward-deployed ready forces in the region.
But much more happened out in Forward-Deployed Naval Force Japan aside from the stunning headlines, including the move of the fighter jets of Carrier Air Wing Five from Naval Air Facility Atsugi to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, closer to the Korean Peninsula.
The man who is on the front lines of the relationship with the host nation and who oversees the facilities in Japan is Rear Adm. Gregory Fenton, commander of Naval Forces Japan. Defense News sat down with Fenton in Japan to discuss the past year.
What are some of your daily challenges as the head of Naval Forces Japan?
Manning is a challenge. Sure, it can be difficult to go through the overseas screening process but, right now, the Navy at large is kind of seeing a dip in manning based on any number of factors, but we expect that to improve after next year.
One of my real day-to-day challenges falls under that Navy Forces Japan hat, and that’s maintaining good relationships with the government of Japan in the Maritime Self Defense Force. Each one of my installation commanding officers] is responsible to do that at the local level. And, of course, that’s where goodwill is really generated, at the local level.
So, by example, my commanding officer here at Yokosuka, he’s responsible to meet regularly with the mayor of Yokosuka and make sure we have good, smooth relations. That’s an essential part of our ability not only to operate here in Japan but to get out and about in town and enjoy those kind of good liberty opportunities as well.
I would submit to you that’s probably my biggest day-to-day challenge — maintaining those good relationships with our partners.
Obviously 2017 was a difficult year out here in Japan. Have the Japanese become impatient with the Navy out here?
Sure. I think it’s easy for someone to draw that conclusion. To be quite honest, we enjoyed a completely opposite response. First of all — and like I said, all relationships start out local – we have received tremendous support from the mayor of Yokosuka and the city of Yokosuka who have consistently told me that they treat our people as if they are their own citizens. And so they shared with us through the grief and the sorrow of the memorial services that we went through. But they continually asked us what they could do to help. So the response from the local folks was just tremendous.
But even at the higher levels of the Maritime Self Defense Forces that I get to deal with, and the government of Japan, their thoughts were much the same; how can we assist you in getting through this process, and can we also draw on any lessons learned that you learned from these incidents as well? Maritime Self Defense Force is operating in about as high a pace as we are right now, and so conceivably, they could be subject to some of those factors as well.
So we’ve had a very good, transparent, open exchange of information, and that’s been based on the strong ties between us and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.
Do you have any large infrastructure projects on the horizon in Japan?
A lot of our facilities’ planning and infrastructure really does go hand-in-hand with the government in Japan because they do provide support to those kinds of projects as well, and so we certainly consider what they would like us to do with those facilities as well as our own interests. While there aren’t any real specific facilities that are important to talk about here in Yokosuka, what’s really been more important has been that transition of Carrier Air Wing Five from Atsugi down to Iwakuni.
There was a lot of infrastructure that was built in Iwakuni and by the government of Japan to support that transition. And so far, the transition has been very smooth. The movement of the squadrons, their personnel and their families down to Iwakuni has been on a timeline. And so that has been, so far, a very good news story both for us, I think, and the government of Japan.
That move has been happening as we speak. Do you have the housing, schools, everything in place already that are available to receive an influx of people?
Yes. And that’s really the success story of this tremendous infrastructure project in Iwakuni. The aspects of medical care, of schools; there was a tremendous number of new housing units and barracks facilities for the sailors that were built in Iwakuni and build on time to be ready to receive the families.
From an infrastructure standpoint, the government of Japan did quite a bit to expand the footprint of the Marine Corp Air Station in Iwakuni, such that they could put in the hangars and infrastructure that was necessary to support the airplanes and the squadrons in their move down there as well. Just a very good success story.
The relationship with the residents of Okinawa has been tense for years. How do you manage that?
Well, I think outwardly everyone looks at Okinawa and the first thing that comes to mind are some of the issues the Marines unfortunately have faced down there. There is a pretty significant Navy footprint in Okinawa as well, and it’s kind of scattered out among several installations that fall under the umbrella of fleet activity in Okinawa. And so we have to do our part down there as well to maintain good relations within the community. And I regularly speak with my installation commanding officer down there. And he and his staff work awful hard, hand in hand with the Marines, to engage those local community mayors, the government officials, again, in that effort to maintain the best possible relationships with the community out there.
It’s not easy at times, certainly, given the media environment and the pressures that exist down there, but they do a commendable job under those circumstances.
Anything you would want people back in the states to know either about service out here or the relationship with the Japanese?
I’ve been out here three times. Many of the sailors here in Japan, once they arrive here they ask for consecutive tours in Japan and tend to move around from ship to shore or ship to ship. The reason they do that is because of the duty opportunities — the opportunities for professional growth and the opportunities to see a part of the world out here are unmatched anywhere in the U.S. Navy.
And despite some of those challenges … with the occasional liberty kind of clamp downs, I firmly believe that any sailor, and family if they have one, that comes here to Forward Deploy Japan will be fully rewarded with tremendous professional opportunities as well as opportunities for their families.
And I highly encourage them to either make the decision to come here or at least talk to somebody who’s been here and gain a greater understanding prior to making that decision.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.