The government on Wednesday declared the U.S. MV-22 tilt-rotor transport aircraft safe to fly, and the U.S. Marine Corps on Friday started test-flying 12 Osprey aircraft now parked at its air station in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The 12 aircraft are expected to be deployed at Futenma air station in Ginowan, the central part of Okinawa Island, in early October.
The government declaration came amid Okinawan people’s fears about the safety of the Osprey. The Japanese and the U.S. governments stress that deployment of the aircraft will contribute to improved military deterrence. But they should not underestimate Okinawan residents’ opposition to the deployment.
If the aircraft are moved to Futenma, Okinawan residents are likely to carry out fierce protests. The possibility cannot be ruled out that such a movement could jeopardize the entire Japan-U.S. security relationship.
In an Osprey accident in Morocco in April, two marines died and two others were seriously injured. An Air Force Osprey crashed in June. The U.S. says the Osprey has no structural or mechanical problems and that human errors caused the accidents. The Japanese government has accepted the explanation.
But the accidents raise suspicion that the Osprey has a fail-safe weakness and does not allow enough room for human error. Since the Osprey combines the functions of both a helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane, experts say that it is difficult for the pilot to control the aircraft. The two recent accidents occurred during the transition from helicopter to airplane mode.
In addition, in July and September, the Osprey made nonscheduled landings in North Carolina to avert accidents.
In an attempt to alleviate opposition to the deployment of the Osprey, Japan and the U.S. have agreed on several provisions:
• The Marine Corps will fly the Osprey in vertical takeoff and landing mode only within the boundaries of U.S. facilities and areas and keep the transition period as short as possible.
The Osprey will fly at an altitude of 150 meters or more outside the facilities — the same as required under Japan’s Aviation Law.
Overflights of nuclear facilities, historical sites and densely populated areas will be avoided. Overflights of hospitals and schools near U.S facilities also will be avoided.
Since the Futenma air station is located in the midst of a densely populated urban area, even minor trouble involving the Osprey could cause significant damage. If there is an incident, Okinawan people’s resentment could deepen to the point of undermining the Japan-U.S. relationship.
First and foremost, Japan and the U.S. should respond to Okinawan people’s call for moving Futenma’s functions outside Okinawa Prefecture.