The United States will conduct training flights of Osprey aircraft over the main islands next week, Lt. Gen. Samuel Angelella, the top commander of the U.S. military in Japan, said Thursday.
It will be the first time the controversial aircraft will conduct training flights over the main islands. Twelve were deployed at the Futenma base in Okinawa Prefecture last fall.
“Next week we will be flying the aircraft from Okinawa to do training elsewhere in Japan,” Angelella told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.
“I can’t really talk about the details of that training, whether it will include low-level or night training,” Angelella said.
He said the U.S. military will conduct the training “as the government of Japan asked (the U.S. forces) to do (so).”
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said separately he had been informed by U.S officials that three of the 12 Ospreys currently deployed at Futenma will conduct low-altitude training around the U.S. Marines’ Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture from March 6 to 8.
The Ospreys are also likely to conduct training flights in other areas such as Camp Fuji in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government hopes to lessen the “excessive burden” on Okinawa for hosting U.S. bases and military operations.
“We would like to ease even a little of the burden,” said Suga, the top government spokesman.
Stationing the Ospreys in Okinawa has been highly controversial, given the aircraft’s spate of crashes overseas and the prefecture’s general frustration with hosting more U.S. bases by far than any other part of Japan.
To alleviate concerns among Okinawa residents, the Japanese and U.S. governments have agreed on a series of measures to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft. Locals say the rules have not been fully observed.
Angelella stressed that any training involving Ospreys will be in line with the bilateral agreement.
“Safety is the priority for U.S. forces in Japan. No matter whether it’s on land, sea or air, wherever we do, we do it safely and we do it effectively,” he said.
The bilateral accord says flights in vertical take-off and landing mode should be basically limited to within the boundary of U.S. military facilities, while avoiding airspace over such places as hospitals and schools as much as possible.
Among accidents involving Ospreys were a fatal crash of an MV-22 in Morocco last April and a training accident in Florida in June in which five crew members were injured.
Ospreys will “strengthen the bilateral capabilities” for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and responding to other contingencies, Angelella said.
In addition to the 12 Ospreys at the Futenma base that have been fully operational since December, the Marines plan to add another 12 to replace aging CH-46 helicopters.