Editorial: Osprey training flights over Japanese mainland

Plans should be called off immediately

Low-altitude training flights using the U.S. military’s new MV-22 Osprey transport, which has been involved in a number of serious accidents, will reportedly be conducted over the Japanese mainland. This is simply unacceptable.

Two days ago the commander of the U.S. forces in Japan announced that training flights with the Osprey, which has vertical take-off and landing capability, would be conducted out of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni from March 6 to 8. According to the announcement, three of the 12 aircraft that were deployed last fall at the air station in Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture will be used in the training.

After the U.S. military’s announcement, the Ministry of Defense provided information on the training flights to Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane and other prefectures in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions as well as Kyushu. This information noted that the training would include low-altitude flights.

Until recently the Japanese government had not even officially acknowledged the existence of training routes. Although Hiroshima Prefecture and other local governments have been asking it to bring about a halt to training flights for 20 years, the central government has taken the position that the operation of U.S. military aircraft was not its concern. Suddenly taking this defiant attitude and advocating the interests of the U.S. can only be described as demonstrating a disregard for the feelings of the local community.

The U.S. military has conducted training flights on its so-called “brown route” along the Chugoku Mountains and in “Area 567,” which straddles Hiroshima, Shimane and Yamaguchi prefectures. The U.S. has hinted that the brown route will be used for the Osprey training flights.

Hidehiko Yuzaki, governor of Hiroshima Prefecture, has expressed regret that no explanation acceptable to the residents of the prefecture has been offered.

That is only natural because repeated low-altitude flights made primarily by fighter aircraft stationed at the base in Iwakuni have disrupted the peaceful lives of residents throughout the Chugoku Mountain region.

Elementary school classes have been interrupted by the roar of aircraft overhead, and some children have said they were frightened. There have also been reports of windows of homes being broken by shock waves. Despite the protests of local governments and residents, sightings of U.S. military aircraft have actually increased.

The fact that training flights by the Osprey will be conducted over the mainland means there will be even more low-altitude flights over the Chugoku Mountains. In anticipation of this, more and more local governments in Hiroshima and Shimane prefectures are installing sound level meters.

Is the Japanese government taking local residents’ fears seriously? Instead of being a mouthpiece for the U.S. military, the government should press for the training flights to be cancelled.

It’s not just a matter of noise and shock waves. Concern about the safety of the flights themselves cannot be dispelled.

Last year the governments of Japan and the U.S. agreed on terms under which the flights by the Osprey would be conducted and specified that low-altitude training flights would be carried out at altitudes of at least 150 meters. And because flights conducted with the movable propellers on top are more likely to result in an accident, various limitations on the flights were also promised. But in a visual survey conducted in Okinawa Prefecture last year, 60 percent of the flights were found to be in violation of the agreement.

Even if the flights are conducted at an altitude of 150 meters, the noise and the fear they generate will be considerable. And there is no guarantee that the promise to impose limitations on the flights will be kept.

Under an agreement between Japan and the U.S., more than 50 aircraft deployed on aircraft carriers at the Atsugi air base in Kanagawa Prefecture are to be transferred to Iwakuni. If the Osprey training over the mainland is not halted, there will be even more low-altitude flights in violation of the agreement.

The Ministry of Defense has stated that the conducting of flights over the mainland is intended to reduce the burden on Okinawa. There is no doubt that consideration for the anger of the people of Okinawa was a factor, and the entire nation of Japan must take this seriously.

But it is also a fact that as long as the Osprey is there Okinawa’s burden of military bases will remain. Both Japan and the U.S. have said they have no objection to shifting Futenma’s functions to Guam. It is time to stop merely passing the burden around and to consider how it can be eliminated entirely.

(Originally published on March 2, 2013)