CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa’s governor has called on Tokyo to stop the upcoming deployment of Osprey aircraft to the island despite reassurances from the U.S. and Japanese governments that the helicopter-airplane hybrid is safe.
On Monday, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima met with Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto in a last-minute effort to head off the arrival of the aircraft to the Marine Corps’ Futenma air station in the coming days, but his pleas were met only with reassurances that Osprey safety measures had been hashed out by a bilateral committee.
Okinawa has objected for the past year to the U.S. deployment of two squadrons of Ospreys to Futenma, with tens of thousands of residents staging public demonstrations calling the aircraft dangerous. However, the U.S. and Japan investigated two recent catastrophic Osprey crashes and determined the aircraft is safe enough to operate from military bases on this southern island and the mainland.
“I can envision the possibility of the Osprey deploying to Okinawa in the future, but I ask you not to carry out the plan,” Nakaima told Morimoto during a meeting in Tokyo.
Last week, Japan agreed to a Marine Corps deployment of the aircraft after conducting its own independent probe of Osprey crashes in Morocco and Florida that killed two Marines and destroyed one of the $78 million aircraft. It agreed with U.S. military investigators that both crashes were caused by pilot errors and not mechanical malfunctions.
A U.S.-Japan joint committee also confirmed those results and set some MV-22 operational guidelines to increase public safety. Under the agreement, the Marine Corps must try to limit flights below 500 feet, make conversions between helicopter and airplane only over U.S. bases, steer clear of landmarks like schools and hospitals, and limit night operations.
However, the service is obligated to follow the rules only when they are practical and do not conflict with mission requirements or other safety measures, according to the agreement.
Nakaima lashed out at the guidelines, saying the agreement language provides loopholes.
“The agreement had some items but they had this clause saying ‘as much as possible,’ ” he said. “We know that such an agreement does not practically mean anything.”
Morimoto said Tokyo will make sure the agreement protects the public but gave no indication that the government would attempt to stop the deployment.
“An agreement (on the safety) is not the end of the process,” he said. “We will continue to work through the joint committee to ensure safety of the aircraft’s operations in Japan.”
The U.S. has repeatedly said the Osprey has an above-average safety record in the Marine Corps fleet and is crucial to security in the region. The deployment is part of a global effort to upgrade the service’s aging Sea Knight dual-rotor helicopters.
The first squadron of Ospreys slated for the Okinawa deployment is now undergoing safety testing at an air station in Iwakuni, Japan. The testing is expected to wrap up this week and the Marine Corps has said the aircraft will be flying in Japan by October. A second squadron is planned to arrive in 2013.