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Saturday, Nov. 19, 2005
Old-timer Kitty Hawk carries on
Working hard until role taken over by nuclear carrier
ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK -- With a deafening roar, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 approached the USS Kitty Hawk, but failing to hook one of the four trap wires, the fighter had to go around and try to land again.
The fighter was just one of many participants in the annual joint maritime exercise that ended Friday between the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy, aimed at increasing cooperation and interoperability between the two forces.
But within the decade, the scene will be different. Navy fighters will be landing on the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to be forward-deployed to the navy base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Lt. Cmdr. Terrence Dudley told reporters aboard the conventionally powered carrier earlier this week that landing on the Kitty Hawk requires high skills and continued training.
Capt. Dave Volonino, chief of staff for the navy's Carrier Strike Group 5, said Japan and the U.S. have a shared interest in maintaining security in the region and the two navies are working together to enhance their joint capabilities.
Vice Adm. Eiichi Nakashima commanded the MSDF in the exercise, and Rear Adm. Douglas McClain, commander of Battle Force 7th Fleet, headed the U.S. side.
The 10-day exercise, which involved about 80 ships from the MSDF and 10 vessels and two submarines from the U.S. Navy, is in line with the goals in the Oct. 29 interim report released by the foreign and defense ministers of the two nations calling for the two forces to work in a more integrated environment.
The Kitty Hawk's carrier-based aircraft will be relocated from the joint MSDF-navy Atsugi Naval Air Station in Kanagawa Prefecture to the U.S. Marine Corps Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture, according to the interim report.
But then Kanagawa residents learned that Washington suddenly announced Oct. 27 that the aging Kitty Hawk will be replaced with a nuclear-powered carrier in 2008.
Washington announced the replacement a day after Japan and the U.S. reached an agreement to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to Nago, Okinawa, from its current home in Ginowan to near Nago.
The timing raised speculation here that Washington did not want the announcement of a nuclear carrier replacement to affect what have been long and arduous negotiations on the Futenma relocation.
"Although Yokosuka residents would be most affected if an accident occurs on a nuclear-powered carrier, it would also have an impact on Kanagawa residents as a whole," Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa told a regular news conference earlier this month. "It will also affect the 40-million strong population of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area."
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer said at the news conference announcing the introduction to Japan of the first forward-deployed nuclear-powered carrier that there has never been an incident in which radioactive material has been released in the 40 years the nuclear-powered vessels have made port calls in Japan.
However, he did not rule out the possibility that a nuclear-related accident could occur.
The major reason Washington is replacing the Kitty Hawk is that nuclear-powered carriers have higher capabilities, he said.
"Capacity and capability are things we thought about, and when you analyze it, the Nimitz-class (nuclear-powered) carrier just wins out," Schieffer said.
Nimitz-class carriers can be deployed in combat twice as long as conventional carriers due to their larger capacities for aviation fuel and weapons, the navy said. The nuclear-powered carriers also have 10 percent more flight deck space, allowing for safer and more efficient operations. The Kitty Hawk and the John F. Kennedy are meanwhile the last conventionally powered flattops, and they are aging and face retirement.
Local government leaders openly have expressed strong opposition to having a nuclear-powered carrier here, but the central government has been talking to them for some time and had indicated to them that a nuclear replacement was being discussed, according to a source who took part in these talks.
"If a nuclear-powered carrier is to be forward-deployed, the U.S. Navy's Yokosuka port needs to be dredged, which will cost Japan about 5 billion yen," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.