The Defense Ministry is considering deploying MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft to a civilian airport in Saga Prefecture, according to sources.
Parliamentary Senior Vice Defense Minister Ryota Takeda will ask the prefecture to accept the plan to effectively militarize Ariake Saga Airport when he meets with Saga Gov. Yasushi Furukawa at the prefectural government offices in Saga on Tuesday, the sources said.
The ministry plans to start buying the hybrid aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like a plane, for the Ground Self-Defense Force in fiscal 2015.
Japan is forming a new amphibious unit similar to the U.S. Marines that will be based in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, by fiscal 2018. The branch is aimed at bolstering Japan’s ability to defend its remote islands in the East China Sea, where China is being increasingly assertive with its territorial claims.
Saga airport, which is close to Nagasaki Prefecture, is seen as ideal for deploying the Osprey, which is used by the U.S. military and destined for use by Japan’s new amphibious force, the sources said.
The ministry also plans to transfer some of its Osprey training exercises at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture to Saga airport, the sources said.
This move would precede the sensitive Okinawa gubernatorial election in November. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is trying to clarify its stance on reducing U.S. military’s footprint in the prefecture after its highly unpopular decision to legalize the use of collective self-defense, which could drag Japan into a war.
Still, public concern over the Osprey’s checkered safety history abroad could prevent Abe from winning Saga’s consent to host the aircraft.
Under a medium-term defense program drafted late last year, the government plans to introduce 17 Ospreys by fiscal 2018.
In a related development Saturday, the U.S. Marines sent two MV-22s from a base in western Japan to Sapporo, via Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, for a weekend air show.
It was the first time an MV-22 had flown to the Tokyo area since it was deployed in Japan in 2012. Osprey flights often stir local opposition because of several fatal accidents that plagued its development, including two that occurred shortly before they arrived in Japan.
The two aircraft left the U.S. base in Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Saturday morning and apparently made a stop at Yokota Air Base to refuel.
The Sapporo Municipal Government in Hokkaido has asked the organizer of the air show, to be held at a GSDF camp in the city, to bar the MV-22s from participating due to safety concerns. Hundreds of people staged a rally in Sapporo Friday to protest the aircraft.
A total of 24 MV-22s have been deployed at the Futenma base in Okinawa. The two MV-22s in Sapporo will leave on Monday