Although no damage was done to local residents or private residences, the incident could have been catastrophic. The U.S. military must take the fears and concerns of local residents seriously, make efforts to investigate the cause of the incident, and take thorough measures to prevent a recurrence. The Japanese government also bears a heavy responsibility to firmly call on the U.S. military to take these actions.
An F-16 fighter stationed at the U.S. Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, encountered difficulties mid-flight and jettisoned two fuel tanks in an attempt to lighten the aircraft in preparation for an emergency landing at Aomori Airport. One of the fuel tanks was found near the Fukaura Town Hall in Aomori, an area with private homes nearby. Fragments were scattered and the road was slick with the fuel that had leaked out. The second tank was found in the mountains of Fukaura Town.
The U.S. military initially announced that the tanks had been dumped over an uninhabited area. A detailed explanation should be provided on the steps that were taken to confirm the safety on the ground.
When the deputy commander of the Misawa base came to apologize, Governor Mimura Shingo of Aomori Prefecture told him: “The tanks are combustible and weigh a considerable amount. The incident is truly regrettable and has caused great anxiety among the prefecture’s citizens.” The U.S. military resumed F-16 training flights yesterday. Local concerns cannot be dispelled without a convincing and detailed explanation of how safety was confirmed.
Repeated delays in reporting incidents to the local community cannot be overlooked. Fukaura Town and Aomori Prefecture were not officially notified via the Ministry of Defense (MOD) until almost four hours after the incident. The U.S. military had immediate knowledge of an incident in which a water bottle dropped from an Osprey stationed at the U.S. Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture in a residential area last month, but did not report it to the Japanese side until the MOD made an inquiry.
The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates the prompt reporting of incidents and accidents involving the U.S. Forces Japan to national and to local governments, cannot be allowed to become a mere formality.
Three years ago, the engine of an F-16 at Misawa Air Base caught on fire immediately after takeoff and the aircraft dumped its two fuel tanks into Lake Ogawara. This could have caused a catastrophe if a fishing boat harvesting freshwater clams had been involved.
Incidents involving U.S. military aircraft are not unique to Aomori Prefecture. In Okinawa Prefecture, with its concentration of U.S. military bases, there are multiple incidents of fallen parts, crashes, and emergency landings every year. The U.S. military states after each incident that it will “determine the cause and prevent a recurrence,” but the situation has not improved at all.
Dangerous low-altitude flight training that caused anxiety among residents has also been witnessed in various locations. The National Governors’ Association has requested that information such as training times and routes be provided in advance, but the request has not been met.
The presence of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which grants various privileges to the U.S. military, looms large behind such responses. If the Kishida administration is cognizant of its mission to protect the lives and property of the people, it should propose a fundamental review of the agreement to the United States.