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Editorial: Investigate the cause of the jettisoned U.S. military fuel tanks and prevent a recurrence

A slight misstep could have been catastrophic

 

The location where one of the two fuel tanks jettisoned over Aomori Prefecture by a F-16 fighter affiliated with U.S. Misawa Air Base on Nov. 30 was only a few dozen meters from the residential area of Fukaura Town, Aomori. A local resident in the area said that their “house shook as if struck by a tornado,” with a loud banging sound.

 

There have been repeated accidents and incidents with F-16 fighters. Why were past lessons not heeded? The U.S. military should take the situation seriously and make every effort to investigate the cause and prevent a recurrence. Aomori citizens’ anxiety will not be allayed otherwise.

 

Timothy Murphy, the Misawa Air Base deputy commander, reportedly explained to Misawa City on Dec. 1 that the F-16 fighter, which was on its way to a training mission, was warned that engine’s oil pressure would fall, and jettisoned the fuel tanks to lighten the aircraft. The pilot explained that he followed the operations manual, which states that the tanks should be jettisoned over an unpopulated area. The U.S. military initially announced that the aircraft had “jettisoned [the tank] in a non-residential area.”

 

One tank has a capacity 1,400 liters of fuel. The amount of fuel remaining is unknown. The F-16 then made an emergency landing at Aomori Airport.

 

In February 2018, a fire erupted from the engine of a F-16 fighter at Misawa base immediately after takeoff, and the aircraft jettisoned its fuel tanks over Lake Ogawara (Tohoku Town, Aomori). At the time, clam fishing boats were operating only 100 to 200 meters away from the point of impact. The engine caught fire on account of human error during the replacement of parts. 

 

An Osprey transport aircraft based in Yokota made an emergency landing at Yamagata Airport in June 2021, and another at Sendai Airport in September 2021. Only a short time earlier the Japanese government had asked the U.S. to prevent a recurrence of the Nov. 23 incident in which an Osprey at Futenma Air Base dropped a water bottle on a residential area in Ginowan City, Okinawa.

 

The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is once again a barrier to a resolution.

 

Japanese aviation law does not apply to U.S. military aircraft due to the special measures of the SOFA. There is no way to stop U.S. military flights, even if residents complain of the danger. The special measures have been regarded as the reason accidents and incidents continue.

 

The F-16 fighter remained on the runway for nearly eight hours after its emergency landing at Aomori Airport, but the Japanese side could not touch the aircraft. The remains of the tanks have also been recovered by the U.S. military, making it difficult for police to investigate. The Japanese side could only ask the U.S. military to investigate the cause, once again highlighting the difficulty in investigating the incident.

 

As U.S.-China relations become more tense, the U.S. military’s strategy of focusing on the Pacific region would not be possible without military bases in Japan. Nevertheless, there occurred an incident that can be viewed as the result of disregarding safety. The U.S. military should be reminded that the local community’s consent and cooperation are indispensable for hosting them, and that ensuring safety is an important requisite for obtaining those. 

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