Twelve MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft were unloaded from a transport ship at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Monday amid protest from Iwakuni’s conservative Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda and local residents. After confirming its safety, Tokyo and Washington plan to start deploying the Osprey in early October at the Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma in Ginowan on Okinawa Island to replace aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters.
Neither government should make light of people’s opposition to the Osprey’s deployment due to safety concerns. Further opposition will spread because of the U.S. military’s plan to carry out low-altitude training for the aircraft in various parts of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. The two governments say the Osprey will contribute to greater deterrence for the sake of Japan’s defense because it flies two times faster, carries three times more cargo and has a radius of operation four times longer than the CH-46 helicopter. By only stressing the Osprey’s operational performance, both Tokyo and Washington will miss the bigger picture of the Osprey issue in Japan.
During the development stage from 1991 to 2000, the Osprey crashed four times, killing 30 people. In an Osprey accident in Morocco in April 2012, two marines died and two others were seriously injured. On June 13, a CV-22, the U.S. Air Force’s version of the Osprey, crashed in Florida, injuring five. Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima of Okinawa said Monday he will continue to oppose the Osprey’s deployment unless the causes of the Morocco and Florida accidents are “fully investigated” and the aircraft’s safety is assured. On July 9, the MV-22B Osprey made an emergency landing at North Carolina’s Wilmington International Airport due to trouble with its drive shaft. The Asahi Shimbun reported on Friday that the Osprey suffered 58 accidents between 2006 and 2011.
Unlike most helicopters, the Osprey reportedly lacks autorotation emergency landing capabilities where the rotor blades rotate freely after experiencing engine failure. Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Act bans such aircraft. A pamphlet of the Osprey’s maker, Bell Boeing, explains that the Osprey “does not rely on autorotation for a survivable power-out landing” but that “the wide separation of the engines and the ability to drive both rotors with one engine make a power-out landing extremely unlikely.”
Even Democratic Party of Japan policy chief Seiji Maehara, a pro-U.S. politician, is calling for the postponement of the Osprey’s deployment. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda should not overlook the possibility that the people’s resentment over the deployment could heighten to such a level as to trigger wholesale anti-U.S. base movements, thus jeopardizing the U.S.-Japan relationship.