The government’s decision to allow Ospreys to resume operations in Okinawa so quickly after a serious accident has highlighted anew its inclination to be too willing to accept the dictates of the U.S. military.
Less than a week had passed since one of the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft crash-landed off the coast of Nago, a city in Okinawa Prefecture, when U.S. forces put the Osprey back into service on Dec. 19.
In a TV program aired over the weekend, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed the need to make an exhaustive investigation into the cause of the accident. Abe also praised the U.S. military’s decision to ground the Osprey following the accident.
The United States has traditionally been reluctant to suspend operations of military aircraft because of accidents, he said. “But Defense Secretary (Ashton) Carter temporarily suspended (Osprey operations) in Japan.”
Three days later, however, the U.S. forces started flying Ospreys again. The Japanese government accepted the U.S. military’s explanation about the accident as it was. It said the accident occurred during an aerial refueling drill when the Osprey’s rotor blades came into contact with the refueling line. The U.S. military claimed the crash was not caused by any problem with the aircraft itself.
On the same day, another Osprey made a gear-up landing at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in the prefecture. The U.S. military said the pilot had successfully landed the aircraft on shock-absorbing padding as its landing gear failed to work, following an established trouble-shooting procedure. Tokyo also accepted this account at face value.
On what grounds are the U.S. military’s descriptions of these accidents based? Aren’t there any concerns that similar accidents may occur again? What are the reasons for the delay in the U.S. reporting of the belly landing to the Japanese government?
The explanations that have been offered by the U.S. military and the Japanese government are not sufficient.
Another point that is fueling anger about the accidents among the people of Okinawa is the fact that Japanese law-enforcement authorities cannot conduct an investigation because of the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries. The agreement gives the United States jurisdiction over crimes and accidents involving U.S. service members, even including those that occur outside U.S. bases.
As for the Osprey crash-landing off Nago, which destroyed the aircraft, the Regional Coast Guard Headquarters has offered to cooperate with the U.S. military in the investigation, but has received no reply.
If Japanese authorities are not allowed to participate in the probe, it is all the more important for the Japanese government to demand sufficient information disclosure by the U.S. military so that it can offer detailed, convincing explanations to the public, especially the people of Okinawa. But the government’s efforts to do so have been perfunctory at best.
Denouncing the government’s handling of what happened, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga said he can no longer deal with such a government, asserting that Japan cannot be called a country under the rule of law.
Onaga’s remarks reflected not only his rage at the U.S. military’s refusal to give consideration to Okinawan people’s anxiety, but also his profound disappointment at the government’s unwillingness to make its case to the U.S. military.
The government should also make serious efforts to revise the Status of Forces Agreement, which is criticized every time a crime or an accident involving the U.S. military occurs.
After the crash, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commanding general of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, told Okinawa Vice Governor Mitsuo Ageda that the Osprey pilot should be praised for his successful ditching efforts to protect homes and residents. Nicholson’s words infuriated the prefectural government, prompting the senior Okinawan official to say they signaled exactly “the mind-set of an occupier.”
The hasty decision to resume Osprey operations can only widen the rift between the prefecture and the U.S. military and the central government.
Ospreys are already in operation in other parts of the Japanese mainland. Plans to deploy the aircraft to bases outside Okinawa are also under way.
The Osprey’s unpredicted accident and the responses by the U.S. military and the central government to the accident that ignored the safety concerns among the public raise serious questions for the entire nation.