Editorial: Japanese government declares Osprey “safe”

Giving the issue a bare minimum of time, the Japanese government appears to have simply swallowed the U.S. line when it comes to the Osprey aircraft, and was disposed to deployment from the very start.

On September 19, the Japanese government declared “safe” the MV22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft operated by U.S. forces. After conducting test flights at the Iwakuni Air Station as early as this week, the U.S. Marine Corps is set to deploy the Osprey to the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa.

But concerns linger. Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima sharply criticized this development, saying, “We don’t believe the Osprey is safe at all. This is just incomprehensible.” If the deployment plan is pushed through, the backlash from Okinawa will create a groundswell, which will lead to serious problems in the future for Japan’s security policy.

From the perspective of the Japanese government, it may be tempting to say that Japan has yielded compromises from the United States after tough negotiations. Indeed, the agreement reached by the Japan-U.S. joint committee charged with this matter includes language that seems to pay certain considerations to the Japanese side.

With respect to Osprey flights, one consideration involves the aircraft’s “vertical-takeoff mode,” which is permitted only on and above U.S. bases. Another stipulates, in line with Japanese Aviation Law, that when it comes to low-altitude flight drills conducted over Japanese territory, the altitude of these flights must be over 150 meters in the air and densely populated areas, as well as hospitals and schools, must be avoided. These inclusions, however, do not resolve fundamental misgivings about the aircraft’s safety.

First of all, the government’s “safety declaration” appears to conclude that the Osprey suffers from no structural deficiencies, a conclusion which ignores the voices of experts in the United States who contend that the design of the aircraft is flawed.

Even if one assumes that the string of Osprey crashes can all be attributed to human error on the part of the pilot, as the U.S. military asserts, a second question then arises: Has there been sufficient training to prevent the occurrence of another accident? The Japan-U.S. agreement states that such training “will continue in Japan, too.” This raises further concerns since, compared to the designated routes flown by civilian aircraft, military aircraft, which are already of greater risk in their operations and drills, are at times ordered to fly beyond the scope of their flight plans to a dangerous degree. The assertion that the Osprey is safe, with this point intentionally left obscure, sounds like sophistry to the public.

Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the Japanese government’s willingness to allow low-altitude flight drills by the Osprey over the Japanese mainland. The aircraft is permitted to make use of “Area 567,” above the western Chugoku Mountains, as well as the six flight routes across Japan unilaterally designated by the U.S. military.

The Japanese government appears to have paid little heed to the protests waged by the Hiroshima prefectural government and other entities for many years, voicing criticism of the drills conducted by U.S. military aircraft over these areas to both the Japanese and U.S. governments. With the Japanese government authorizing the Osprey’s flight routes, the possibility exists that such drills might expand to the point where other types of aircraft, including fighter jets, are flying above these areas.

Furthermore, even with the Osprey flying more than 150 meters overhead, nearby residents will no doubt suffer noise pollution and a sense of anxiety. Thirteen years ago, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed that such flight drills would avoid densely populated areas. In reality, though, the United States has not respected that agreement.

This new agreement, too, merely represents the U.S. pledge to put forth effort. Whether the agreement is respected, or whether it becomes an empty promise, is up to the U.S. military.

What will be the consequences if the Osprey is deployed and an accident occurs at some point during its flight drills? Trust in the Japan-U.S. security regime will be shaken and sharp questions will be asked about the responsibility of the Japanese government. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda needs to recognize that he must prepare himself to that extent.

For one, the test flights at Iwakuni must not be forced upon the local community.

This past July, the Association of National Governors adopted an extraordinary resolution voicing their concerns over the deployment of the Osprey. It must not be forgotten that this issue is no longer limited to Okinawa and Iwakuni.

(Originally published on September 20, 2012)