Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Sunday the Self-Defense Forces plans to deploy Osprey transport aircraft at Saga airport when it begins introducing the U.S. tilt-rotor plane in fiscal 2015.
In his first public mention of an expected deployment site for SDF-operated Osprey aircraft, Onodera told reporters he recently informed Saga Gov. Yasushi Furukawa of the plan.
Onodera plans to send Parliamentary Senior Vice Defense Minister Ryota Takeda to Saga Prefecture on Tuesday to explain the deployment plan and ask for local support, sources said. The negotiations might not be easy, however, as public opposition for deployment of Osprey remains strong, due to safety and noise concerns.
The SDF aims to build an amphibious force modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, which neighbors Saga, by fiscal 2018 to bolster Japan’s ability to defend its remote islands on the back of China’s increased maritime activities in recent years.
Onodera signaled hopes to use Ospreys in integration operations with the planned amphibious unit and underscored the geographical advantage of the airport, formally known as Ariake Saga Airport and located close to Sasebo, as host of Ospreys.
Also, in an apparent bid to play up its efforts to reduce Okinawa’s base-hosting burden in the run-up to the Okinawa gubernatorial election slated for November, the defense minister suggested he is considering the civilian airport as a candidate for hosting some of the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Ospreys currently deployed at the Futenma air station in Okinawa Prefecture.
The government will procure 17 Ospreys for the SDF by fiscal 2018. If Saga Prefecture agrees to host the aircraft, all 17 units will be deployed at Saga airport.
At the airport, construction of hangars and maintenance facilities will start in fiscal 2015, according to the sources.