Tens of thousands protest Osprey deployment plan to Okinawa
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 9, 2012
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Tens of thousands of Japanese protesters gathered Sunday near a U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa to oppose next month’s planned deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft to the island.
Local government officials condemned the airplane-helicopter hybrid as defective, while red-clad opponents waved signs calling for the U.S. to halt plans to replace aging Marine Corps helicopters at the Futenma air station with Ospreys.
The rally in Ginowan City was one of the largest anti-U.S. military demonstrations on the island in recent years and underscored the persistent skepticism here over the Osprey’s safety, despite U.S. and Japan probes that have so far ruled out mechanical failures in two recent accidents that killed or injured crew members.
An emergency landing Friday of an Osprey near Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina due to an oil leak added fresh fuel to the protest. Masaharu Kina, speaker of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, claimed the incident is further evidence the aircraft is structurally flawed and should not be allowed to fly in Japan.
“Here on Okinawa, the military is about to carry out the deployment plan, ignoring our overwhelming voices against it,” Kina said.
The deployment is part of the Marine Corps’ global effort to upgrade its helicopter fleet, which has relied on dual-rotor CH-46 Sea Knights for transport since the Vietnam War. The service has repeatedly said the Osprey has proven to be one of its safest aircraft since it was first put into service in 2007.
The Marines announced plans last year to deploy Ospreys to Futenma, where they will fly routes to U.S. bases on Okinawa and mainland Japan. Doubts over the aircraft’s safety have dogged the effort for months.
U.S. and Japan officials have said the Ospreys, some of which already have arrived in Japan, will not be allowed to fly until their safety is verified, but protest organizers passed a resolution calling the aircraft “structurally defective” and urged the U.S. and Japan to scrap the deployment plans.
“No matter how many times the Japanese government regurgitates the safety of the Osprey, we will never be convinced,” said Shoko Toguchi, 67, of Naha, who joined the rally with her daughter and a neighbor. “How many lives have to be lost before stopping the aircraft operations?”
A Marine Corps Osprey crashed in April during a Morocco training mission, killing two crew members, and an Air Force Osprey spun into the ground in June while training at a base in Florida, destroying the $78 million aircraft and sending five crew members to the hospital.
So far, official investigations have found no evidence that mechanical malfunctions or design flaws caused the aircraft to go down, according to both governments. U.S. and Japan investigators blamed the Morocco on the Marine pilots.
On Tuesday, Japan Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto is scheduled to travel to Okinawa and meet with local leaders to discuss the latest results of Japan’s safety probe into the Florida crash, according to a ministry spokesman.
The Japanese findings, which have not yet been announced, will complete the pre-deployment safety analysis by the two allies, though the ministry declined to comment on when a final decision on the Ospreys would be made.
The Air Force announced Aug. 30 that its investigation into the Florida crash found the crew erred by not keeping the aircraft out of the propeller wake of another Osprey.
Last month, Morimoto traveled to Okinawa to tell the local government that Japan investigators agreed with a Marine Corps finding that the Morocco crash was caused by pilots who did not properly heed a tailwind.