Osprey deployment a risky move

The U.S. Defense Department has announced that 10 CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft will be stationed at Tokyo’s Yokota Air Base by 2021, starting in 2017. This represents the first deployment of Ospreys in Japan outside of Okinawa. The U.S. Marine Corps already has 24 MV-22 Ospreys at its Futenma base in Ginowan in central Okinawa — for which the Abe administration is pushing construction of a replacement facility in the Henoko area of Nago in the northern part of the island.

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani welcomed the decision, saying that it will not only increase the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. alliance, thus contributing to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, but also improve the ability to quickly carry out humanitarian assistance and rescue operations in case of a major disaster, such as a big quake hitting Tokyo. But the Abe administration should keep in mind that the decision — which came without prior explanations to the public — is causing dissatisfaction and concern among people who live near the Yokota base.

Two years ago, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that there would be no deployment of Ospreys at the base. Mayor Ikuo Kato of Fussa said the city can’t accept the decision, pointing to past accidents involving Ospreys and citing fears about their safety among many of the local residents. The area around the base is densely populated and local residents have long expressed fears about possible accidents involving U.S. military aircraft and complaints about jet noise.

The concern over possible accidents involving CV-22 Ospreys as referred to by the mayor is understandable. So far, no major accidents involving MV-22 Ospreys deployed at Futenma have occurred. But the Defense Ministry disclosed this week that the rate of class-A accidents, which involve deaths, injuries leading to total paralysis or damage worth $2 million or more, for the CV-22, the U.S. Air Force’s version of the tilt-rotor aircraft, is 7.21 per 100,000 flight hours — more than three times the corresponding figure of 2.12 for the MV-22, the U.S. Marine Corps’ version. Although the MV-22 and the CV-22 share the same basic characteristics, their use is different. While the MV-22 is mainly used to transport marines to the battlefront, the CV-22 is often employed in even more severe conditions, including covert offensive missions in mountainous areas. Nakatani made it clear that the CV-22s based at Yokota will take part in night and low-altitude flight training, in addition to ordinary training.

Japan and the U.S. have spelled out rules for MV-22s, including flying in vertical takeoff and landing mode, or helicopter mode, only within the boundaries of U.S. facilities, flying at an altitude of 150 meters or more outside the facilities and avoiding flying over nuclear power facilities, historical sites and densely populated areas, and hospitals and schools near U.S. bases. But these rules have reportedly been violated in a number of cases. The government needs to protest to the U.S. side quickly if it detects violations of the agreement over the operations of either MV-22s or CV-22s.

Apparently, the U.S. has chosen to deploy the CV-22s at Yokota, instead of Kadena Air Base in southern Okinawa, to give the appearance of reducing the burden of U.S. military presence on Okinawans at a time when local opposition to construction of the Futenma replacement facility in Nago remains strong. However, this is mostly just for show. The Yokota CV-22s will very likely fly to Okinawa for training with the 353rd Special Operations Group at Kadena. Given the 24 MV-22s at Futenma, the number of Ospreys taking part in training in Okinawa will increase.

The latest decision may only deepen resentment among people in both Tokyo and Okinawa, thus having a negative impact on Japan-U.S. relations.