The U.S. Navy is studying a plan to move its aircraft carrier flight training from Iwo Jima _ the famed site of one of World War II's bloodiest battles _ to an uninhabited southwestern Japanese island.
A deal to move off Iwo Jima, which has been discussed for years, would be a major breakthrough for both countries. But it could still face opposition from local politicians.
"The Japanese government has offered it as a possible site, and we are studying the offer," Jon Nylander, a spokesman for the Commander Naval Forces Japan, said Wednesday of the uninhabited island. He said there is no time frame for when a decision will be made.
Though it is one of the most famous battlefields of U.S. history, the Navy has long seen Iwo Jima _ now known officially as Ioto _ as a poor training site because the remote volcanic crag where tens of thousands of U.S. and Japanese died in 1945 is too far away from alternative landing strips if an emergency arises.
Japan has been hard-pressed to find an alternative because local governments tend to oppose the noise and dangers associated with having a military airfield nearby. Although the island itself is uninhabited, the government needs to win over the support of residents in the prefecture (state) where it is located.
Opposition to building a new base on Okinawa, and moving about 8,000 Marines to the U.S. territory of Guam, has kept a major realignment of U.S. forces in Asia on hold for years. That standoff has yet to be resolved.
Japan has suggested the Iwo Jima flight training be conducted on Mageshima, an island in Japan's southwest, where Tokyo plans to build a military base to bolster its southern defenses and its preparedness for natural disasters.
Mageshima was officially named as a candidate in a statement following last month's "2 plus 2" meeting between the U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers. Japanese government officials earlier this month met with local leaders to discuss the plan.
Iwo Jima is inhabited full-time only by Japanese troops, who maintain a small presence there. It is located about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) south of Atsugi, the base on Japan's main island where the USS George Washington's air wing is stationed when not at sea.
Pilots need to train on land-based airstrips to get the qualifications they need to take off and land at sea. Iwo Jima is used by the Navy several times a year for its pilots assigned to the George Washington, which has its home port just south of Tokyo.
Atsugi, also near Tokyo, is a crowded city, and local opposition has made carrying out more training there unrealistic. Iwo Jima _ though initially seen as a temporary solution _ has been used instead for more than 20 years.
Still, U.S. officials have long complained that Iwo Jima is dangerous because pilots using it have nowhere else to land if they experience mechanical failure or bad weather, which is common on Iwo Jima.
Similar training strips in the U.S. have alternate landing areas for such a scenario. The Navy ideally tries to have an alternative landing site within 100 miles (160 kilometers).
Mageshima would provide access to such alternative landing sites, and would also be closer to the home base of the air wing when it moves to Iwakuni, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away. That move is scheduled for 2014, but could be delayed because of the overall problems caused by the Okinawa standoff.
There are about 50,000 U.S. troops stationed across Japan in a post-World War II security pact.