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Japan eyes buying Ospreys as US looks to expand fleet to mainland

An MV-22 Osprey from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa prepares to land at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo July 19, 2014. Two Ospreys landed at the Air Force base to refuel en route to the Sapporo Air Show which the Marine Corps hopes to raise awareness of the aircraft's safety record, state-of-the-art technology and explain how important the tilt-rotor aircraft is to the Japan-U.S. strategic alliance.

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan’s defense ministry wants funding to purchase Osprey aircraft starting next year, with the addition of more than a dozen tilt-rotor aircraft over the next few years, despite homegrown protests and concerns regarding the aircraft’s safety.

During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera lauded the ability and performance of the controversial helicopter-airplane hybrid in the Philippines, where it was used extensively in typhoon relief operations.

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An aircraft that can fly like a plane, but take off and land like a helicopter, would be an asset to many Japanese communities, he said.

“In consideration of the Self-Defense Force’s disaster relief operations, which are particularly important for certain municipalities, it is a critical fact that there are numerous remote islands in Japan, and many of them don’t have a runway,” Onodera said at a recent news conference.

“Under such restricted conditions, tilt-rotor aircraft such as the Ospreys have superior capability to carry out disaster relief operations and transport patients in a timely manner... In addition, tilt-rotor aircraft are vital equipment for defending Japan’s territory, including outlying islands.”

Onodera said Japan’s five-year midterm National Defense Program Guidelines for fiscal 2014 and beyond calls for as many as 17 tilt-rotor aircraft by fiscal 2018. The purchase of the V-22 aircraft, however, is not yet set in stone, and the type of aircraft to be purchased was still under consideration. However, if Japan begins purchasing the tilt-rotor craft next year, they will most likely start with the Osprey, as several other variations are still in development.

The announcement came as plans were also laid out to build facilities for the U.S. military’s Osprey fleet on bases in mainland Japan so the majority of flight training could take place outside of Okinawa, where the birds are based.

Starting in 2012, the arrival of two squadrons of 12 Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft to the southern island caused small but impassioned protests from residents concerned about several high-profile crashes that plagued the aircraft early in its development and occurred sporadically in the preceding years.

A December 2013 telephone survey found that 71.2 percent of respondents said that prefectures outside of Okinawa should host military drills involving the Osprey. That poll was taken two days after the Okinawan government had approved an unpopular relocation plan of the Futenma facility to another location on the island.

The Marine Corps has tried to assuage Japanese fears about the aircraft, which has become a Marine Corps and Air Force workhorse in recent years, flying successfully in combat and rescue missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Libya as well as in relief and training operations in South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Australia and Guam.

Multiple Marine Corps Osprey pilots from different units interviewed by Stars and Stripes during the course of the past two years have all insisted the aircraft is safe. They praised the aircraft for its increased cargo capacity, speed and durability under fire.

The Japanese are not alone in trying to purchase the Osprey. The Defense Department announced in October that Israel was buying six Osprey for its air force.

Japanese military scholars applauded the move to procure the aircraft, saying the Osprey is vital to Japan’s defense.

“Japan is an island nation, and for the defense of outlying islands, sending needed troops in a timely manner is crucial,” said Toshiyuki Shikata, professor at Teikyo University and a retired lieutenant general of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. “The payload of the current Chinook is absurdly small. It has to be the Osprey, which has twice the payload, with threefold speed and has four times the flight distance.”

Shikata said the Osprey is safe and is an effective deterrent to nations involved in land and resource disputes with Japan. He said its ability in relief operations is sure to change perceptions.

“Should a crisis occur in Korean Peninsula, or Taiwan Strait, there is a need for quick evacuation of Japanese citizens,” he said. “The Ospreys have the capability for such operations, which is not possible with conventional helicopters.”

Two Ospreys stopped at Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo, for the first time Saturday, where they were scheduled to refuel en route to the July 20 Sapporo Air Show. The Ospreys’ participation in the Sapporo Air Show is aimed at raising public awareness of the aircraft.

The Kyodo News agency reported Friday that the Sapporo municipal government requested that the organizer of a weekend air show stop the arrival of two U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft because of safety concerns among local residents.

burke.matt@stripes.com

sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com

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