On April 5, five CV-22 transport aircraft of the U.S. Air Force arrived at the U.S. military’s Yokota Air Base, which straddles Fussa City and other municipalities in Tokyo. The Ospreys finally made their first flight over the Japanese capital, raising concerns about accidents.
Accidents involving the U.S. military have been occurring at an unusual rate in the last few years. On Feb. 9, an engine cover from an Osprey was found on the beach in Uruma City, Okinawa Prefecture. On Dec. 13, 2017, a window from a large helicopter dropped onto the playground of Futenma Daini Elementary School.
According to statistics compiled by the Okinawa Prefectural Government (March 2018), the number of accidents involving the U.S. military stationed in Okinawa used to hover at around 50 per anum, but the number has been growing in recent years, hitting 99 in 2016 and 81 in 2017.
The statistics for fiscal 2017 released by the Naval Safety Center (NSC) of the U.S. in November 2017 show that the rate of the most serious Class A accidents per 100,000 hours of flight of the U.S. Marine Corps’ aircraft reached a 13-year high. Class A accidents are defined as accidents that result in the destruction of an aircraft, damage worth two million dollars or more, or loss of life or permanent total disability. One of the Class A accidents that occurred in fiscal 2017 was the crash of a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey off the coast of Abu in Nago in December 2016.
In recent years, the rate of Class A accidents per 100,000 hours of flight was at its highest level in fiscal 2004, the time of the Iraq War, at 5.0, according to the NSC’s data. Then the rate steadily declined and dropped to 1.36 in fiscal 2010. However, it rose to 3.29 in fiscal 2015 and edged up to 4.40 in fiscal 2017, approaching the level marked during the Iraq War.
What is behind the increase in accidents? The Heritage Foundation, an influential American conservative think tank, released the “2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength” in October 2017. The index shows that only 40% of the Marine Corps’ aircraft are able to be used due to insufficient maintenance of defense equipment, linking this fact to the Obama administration’s policy of reducing military spending.
The index also offers the following analysis: “As of December 31, 2016, only 41% of the Marine Corps’ fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft were considered flyable. Readiness rates among the Hornet fleet are even more severe, with just over a quarter of the Corps’ 280 aircraft considered flyable. As a result, the Corps is 150 airplanes short of the necessary requirement to meet its flight hour goals.”
In addition to citing these mind-boggling figures, the foundation warns that the risk of accidents is increasing due to aging aircraft and reduced flight hours.
An annual report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Sept. 7, 2017 is even more noteworthy. The report points out: “As of June 2017, 37% of the warfare certifications for cruiser and destroyer crews homeported in Japan had expired, and over two-thirds of the expired certifications had been expired for five months or more. This represents more than a fivefold increase in the percentage of expired warfare certifications for these ships since GAO’s May 2015 report.”
Unlike the crews of U.S.-based ships, the operational schedules of American warships homeported overseas limit the training time for their crews. GAO says vessels based in Japan, where the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet is stationed, are particularly problematic and crews stationed in Yokosuka and Sasebo had failed to undergo all the necessary training as of 2015. GAO senior official John Pendleton says about the Seventh Fleet, “They have been warning for a long time that they have been operating at a pace that is unsustainable.” The U.S. military in Japan is in an extremely dangerous condition because of the exhaustion of service members and lack of crew training due to long-term engagement in operations and insufficient maintenance of defense equipment.