The government formally announced Tuesday the U.S. Air Force will deploy a squadron of tilt-rotor CV-22 Osprey aircraft at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo in 2017.
The news immediately drew a chorus of protests from residents of towns and cities in the area.
However, Japanese officials immediately welcomed the announcement and tried to downplay concerns about the controversial plane’s safety.
The U.S. Defense Department said in a statement that the first three aircraft will arrive at Yokota in the second half of 2017, and an additional seven are scheduled be stationed there by 2021.
Yokota Air Base occupies parts of the cities and towns of Fussa, Mizuho, Musashimurayama, Hamura, Tachikawa and Akishima in western Tokyo.
Many local residents have complained of noise generated by U.S. military aircraft taking off or landing at the base and are concerned about the possibility of accidents.
“(The deployment) in our country will bolster the deterrent power of the Japan-U.S. alliance and its capability to cope with” various emergencies, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, welcoming the Pentagon announcement.
“It will also help stabilize the Asia-Pacific region,” he added.
The Osprey can take off vertically like a helicopter and then, by tilting its rotors, fly horizontally like an airplane.
During its development phase, the Osprey was blamed for four deadly accidents that killed a total of 30 people, and questions were raised about its safety.
The U.S. developed the Osprey as the main successor to the CH-46E helicopter. The Osprey can fly twice as fast as the CH-46E and has four times the range, according to the Defense Ministry.
The recent deployment of the MV-22, the U.S. Marines’ version of the aircraft, in Okinawa caused a lot of controversy among local residents because of the safety concerns.
Both the Pentagon and the Japanese government have stressed that the accident rate of the MV-22 is not particularly high when compared with other aircraft being used by the U.S. Marines.
According to the Defense Ministry, the MV-22’s accident rate for 100,000 flying hours was 1.93 from October 2003 until April 2012. For various helicopters the rate was 1.11 for the CH-46E, 4.51 for the CH-53D and 2.35 for the CD-53E.
But the accident rate for the CV-22, the version used by the U.S. Air Force, stood at 13.47 as of June 2012, nearly seven times higher than that of the MV-22, the Defense Ministry said.
The U.S. Air Force often flies CV-22s on special low-altitude missions, which is believed to be one of the reasons for its higher accident rate, media reports say.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Suga claimed the MV-22 and CV-22 craft are “identical” in terms of structure and safety features.
“We will naturally put top priority on safety. We should think about it until the latter half of 2017, when (CV-22s) will be deployed” at Yokota, he said.
The U.S. government has recently decided to sell 17 Ospreys to the Ground Self-Defense Force for about ¥360 billion.
“The deployment of tilt-rotor aircraft (at Yokota) will provide increased capability for U.S. Special Operations Forces to respond quickly to crises and contingencies in Japan and across the Asia-Pacific region, including humanitarian crises and natural disasters,” the Pentagon said in a press release issued Monday in Washington.
“It will also increase interoperability, enhance operational cooperation and promote stronger defense relations with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces,” it said.
Local residents were angered by the announcement.
“Surrounding areas of the base are crammed with houses,” said Katsuhiko Iwata, 75, a leading member of a residential group that deals with issues involving the Yokota base. “If an aircraft were to crash, it would cause a great deal of damage.”
The base’s fences are surround by houses, schools and hospitals — a situation similar to the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma base in Okinawa Prefecture.
“In the U.S., (Ospreys) don’t fly over residential areas,” Iwata said. “What do they think Japan is . . . a colony?”
Information from Kyodo added