American forces in Japan resumed flying the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft Monday, just six days after a crash landing off Okinawa, despite strong local concerns in a decision that illustrates how little influence the Japanese government holds over the troops.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada met Monday with Maj. Gen. Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of the U.S. forces in Japan. The Americans said they inspected all Ospreys and found no problems with the aircraft. Given the weather and other conditions at the crash, Inada accepted the explanation as “reasonable.”
Treaty prevents halt by Tokyo
U.S. forces told Japan on Friday that they intended to resume use of the Ospreys. The Japanese government urged more caution, saying it was too soon. But American military vessels are “granted the use” of Japanese facilities and areas under the Japan-U.S. security treaty. Tokyo may not stop such use unless it reaches a special agreement with Washington.
Grounding the Ospreys, a key transport aircraft for the U.S. Marine Corps, could curtail the dexterity of the military forces and obstruct missions. “Ospreys are the only transport planes that can reach the Taiwan Strait or the Korean Peninsula from Japan in an emergency,” said Toshiyuki Shikata, a Teikyo University professor and former member of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force. “They will quickly start flying again if there are no problems with the aircraft itself.”
American forces needed 11 days to resume flights of HH-60 rescue helicopters after a 2013 crash at the Camp Hansen base in Okinawa, and 15 days for the AV-8 Harrier aircraft after an accident in September.
As of September 2015, there were 2.64 serious accidents involving Ospreys per 100,000 hours of flight time, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry — a typical rate for a U.S. Marine aircraft.
“The U.S. said that refueling the Osprey in air caused the accident,” a Japanese official said. “We separated this issue from the act of flying itself, and asked them to respond.”
Tokyo and Washington agreed that before Ospreys may refuel in flight again, U.S. forces would ensure that troops have proper training and that detailed information would be provided to Japan’s government regarding safety precautions being taken.
The U.S. Air Force plans to deploy Ospreys at its Yokota base in the Tokyo area, while the Japanese GSDF looks to introduce the aircraft in Saga Prefecture. Opposition to these moves could grow if the public is dissatisfied with the response to the recent crash.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga on Monday slammed the decision to resume Osprey flights. “There is no concern for Okinawa residents, who contribute to the Japan-U.S. security framework,” he said. “I am extremely frustrated.”
Onaga said he will continue urging Japan and the U.S. to cease these flights and remove Ospreys from Okinawa. The governor visited the crash site off the coast of Nago on Sunday. He had urged Inada immediately after the accident to look into the cause and to halt all Osprey flights. Some prefectural officials are disappointed that the planes returned to use just six days later.
Japan’s national government also faces criticism as frustration grows over the lack of information on incidents involving U.S. forces, due partly to Japan’s inability to police them under the Status of Forces Agreement.
“The national government accepted the U.S. explanation without any questions and accepted the resumption of flights, which can only be described as a disregard for Okinawans,” Onaga said.
The crash occurred near Henoko, the proposed relocation site for the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base. Though Tokyo is calling for local understanding, citing the need to reduce the safety concerns at Futenma, Okinawa disagrees that the move will lessen the overall safety risks.