SAGA – Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera insisted Monday the planned deployment of Osprey aircraft in southwestern Japan poses no safety concerns after he resumed talks with local officials that were suspended earlier this year following a fatal helicopter crash.
“There are no problems in the safety of Ospreys,” Onodera said in a meeting with Saga Gov. Yoshinori Yamaguchi while seeking support for the plan to deploy the controversial tilt-rotor transport in the prefecture.
The Defense Ministry wants to deploy 17 newly acquired V-22 Ospreys at Saga Airport to strengthen the Self-Defense Forces’ ability to protect outlying islands amid China’s increasing maritime assertiveness.
But Tokyo has faced difficulty in pushing through the deployment after an SDF AH-64D attack helicopter crashed into a home in Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, in February.
During his meeting with Yamaguchi, Onodera acknowledged the strong public concern over the deployment and said his ministry will do its best “with sincerity” to win residents over.
Yamaguchi, however, stopped short of clarifying whether the Saga Prefectural Government will support the deployment, saying it will examine Onodera’s explanation.
Safety concerns over the deployment were already evident before the chopper crash, which resulted in the deaths of the pilot and co-pilot. A girl was slightly injured when she fled the home.
U.S. government data show that the rate of severe accidents involving the MV-22 variant of the Osprey, used by the U.S. Marines, has risen about 1.7 times since April 2012.
But Defense Ministry officials have claimed that the rising accident rate has nothing to do with the safety of the Osprey itself.
To help sell the deployment plan, the ministry has said the Ground Self-Defense Force, which will operate the aircraft, has no plans to conduct aerial refueling missions and other operations in the skies over Saga Prefecture.
With delivery of the U.S.-built Ospreys expected to start around this fall, the government is considering sending them first to GSDF Camp Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture since Saga Airport is unlikely to be ready for the deployment by then.
Japan is seeking to beef up defense of its far-flung islands in the southwest as tensions remain high near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China and Taiwan, in the East China Sea.