Editorial: Bringing of Osprey to Iwakuni

Futenma deployment must be reconsidered

Late next month an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft will reportedly be brought to the United States Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, assembled there and then make test flights.

The apparent goal of the governments of the U.S. and Japan is to demonstrate that the Osprey, a vertical takeoff and landing transport aircraft, can operate safely, prior to its permanent deployment at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

But we can’t accept this so easily.

In April an Osprey crashed in Morocco, killing two Marines and severely injuring two others. The U.S. stated that there was no problem with the aircraft. If that’s the case, there should be no need to conduct flights at Iwakuni.

The Japanese government apparently intends to seek the understanding of Okinawa, which opposes deployment of the aircraft there, but what about that? If the government really wants to demonstrate sympathy for the feelings of the people of Okinawa, shouldn’t it pressure the U.S. to reconsider deployment of the aircraft at Futenma?

The deployment of the Osprey at Futenma was originally expected to take place around October of this year. At the time of the discussions, preliminary deployment at sites on the main island of Honshu, such as Iwakuni and Camp Fuji in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, was considered.

But, for reasons related to U.S. military operations, the deployment was moved up and is now expected to take place around August. Prior deployment at Iwakuni, which was shelved when the schedule was moved up, was refloated when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda directed that Iwakuni be used for test flights.

But it is hard to believe that the people of Okinawa will accept this. For Okinawa, where more than 70 percent of the U.S. military facilities in Japan are located, the deployment of the Osprey is unmistakably an additional burden. Even if the aircraft performs satisfactorily in flights at Iwakuni, this won’t allay the concerns of the residents of the Futenma area.

Most important, concern about the aircraft’s safety has not abated. The U.S. told Japan that the accident in Morocco was the result of human error, not a problem with the aircraft. But the investigation is still underway, and the final report on the cause of the crash is not expected to be completed until later this year.

Meanwhile Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto has hinted that he will approve deployment of the aircraft at Futenma even before the whole truth about the accident has been uncovered.

Prime Minister Noda and the Cabinet have repeatedly stated that they will reduce the burden on Okinawa. Meanwhile the governments of Japan and the U.S. have agreed to make repairs to the runway and other facilities at Futenma. It is only natural that as the “entrenchment” of Futenma gradually proceeds, the people of Okinawa feel a sense of distrust.

For Iwakuni as well it is conceivable that the deployment will not end up being just a temporary burden.

A number of experts have suggested that the U.S. is in a hurry to deploy the Osprey at Futenma so that it can operate in conjunction with an amphibious assault ship that was deployed at the U.S. naval base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, in April. Iwakuni, which is not far from Sasebo, will have lingering concern that the aircraft will continue to fly out of Iwakuni.

Strangely enough, the Japanese government has decided on a December opening for the Iwakuni Kintaikyo Airport, which will entail joint military and civilian control of the base. The test flights are set for around the same time, and we can’t help feeling it’s strange that the issue of these flights has come up. Clearly, the continued expansion and strengthening of the functions of the base in return for its use as a civilian airport are not acceptable.

It goes without saying that Yamaguchi Prefecture and the City of Iwakuni have an obligation to avoid exposing their citizens to danger. The prefecture and the city must directly question the central government about the safety of the Osprey and the necessity of its deployment in Japan.

(Originally published on June 10, 2012)