Misawa Air Base, Japan — Far down the runway, bordered on both sides by snow-covered fields, the sleek form of the jet fighter the Japanese have nicknamed the ``gray shark'' comes into view. In only a few moments, the jet roars past, arcing into the sky. Within minutes, seven more of the United States Air Force's most advanced attack fighters, the F-16 Fighting Falcons, streak into the sky. The planes are part of a squadron of 27 in the 432nd Tactical Fighter Wing that began to arrive last year at this strategic airbase on the northern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu. Another squadron will be in place by next summer.
The deployment of the Falcons, US Air Force officials here say, is the first increase in US air strength in this part of the world in ``a good 15 years.'' It is a powerful statement of the US's -- and Japan's -- concern over the rapid buildup of Soviet military might in this vital corner of Northeast Asia.
Ten years ago, Misawa was a quiet outpost occupied only by an electronic intelligence-and-communications unit. Now this rural area of Japan is the site of the largest US base-expansion program in the Pacific.
A virtually constant stream of aircraft turns Misawa's runway into the scene of a small military air show. US Navy P-3 antisubmarine patrol aircraft leave here to search the nearby seas of Japan and Okhotsk for Soviet submarines. Newly arrived -- within the last three years -- Japanese E-2c Hawkeye early-warning planes lumber off the tarmac, their huge circular radar domes rotating slowly above the fuselage. The Hawkeyes' mission is to detect Soviet aircraft heading toward Japan from bases as close as about 500 miles away on Sakhalin Island.
Two squadrons of Japanese F-1 jet fighters stand parked by the runway. At all hours of the day or night, at least two of these planes are on alert status. They are primed to take off within five minutes to intercept any Soviet aircraft detected by Japanese radar. The rate of these ``scrambles'' by Japanese pilots has tripled in the past five years, as increasing numbers of Soviet planes probe Japan's northern defenses.
All this activity is a response, says US Col. Michael Ryan, to the ``big-time modernization of Soviet fighter forces'' in East Asia. There are, according to US military sources, about 2,700 Soviet aircraft attached to the Soviet Far East command.
``Misawa, with a strategic location with respect to the Kurile Islands, Sakhalin, the mainland of Russia, was a smart place to put a strong power projection capability,'' says Colonel Ryan, a veteran fighter pilot.
The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, equipped in the north with advanced F-15 Eagle interceptors and F-1s, is designed to play a purely defensive role. In a crisis, Ryan says carefully, ``we can get places they [the Japanese] can't get with their Air Force.''
The presence of the F-16s, says Ryan, ``is not only a statement of our government -- it's a statement of the Japanese government. To agree to placing air-to-ground assets into this part of the country is a very visible sign to anybody that's looking.''
The Soviets are certainly ``looking.'' Invectives on the air base have become a staple of Soviet propaganda. The criticism doesn't seem to bother Ryan. ``I think it is a compliment,'' he says with a slight smile.
Indeed, in a symbolic gesture, US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger will visit Misawa this weekend during his two-day visit to Japan.