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Japan opens door for possible shift of Ospreys off Okinawa

A Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey sits on the tarmac at Futenma air station after arriving late morning Oct. 1, 2012, from Iwakuni. The U.S. military has deployed the controversial aircraft to Okinawa despite fierce opposition by local Japanese.

TRAVIS TRITTEN/STARS AND STRIPES

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2014

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japanese officials appear to be laying the groundwork for shifting some Marine Corps Ospreys to the mainland from Okinawa, where some residents have grumbled over their deployment.

At a news conference Monday, Saga Gov. Yasushi Furukawa said he was willing to accept Japan Ground Self-Defense Force tilt-rotor aircraft at Saga airport, on Kyushu island. The Japanese will begin procurement of the first of their scheduled 17 tilt-rotor aircraft — most likely Ospreys — beginning in fiscal year 2015.

The idea of moving a portion of the Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey to the mainland was first requested by Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima in December 2013 and became a campaign issue in the prefectural governor’s race earlier this month.

Nakaima’s campaign touted that he had negotiated billions of dollars in subsidies from the central government in exchange for his approval of moving Marine Corps Air Station Futenma flight operations to renovated facilities at Camp Schwab — and that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave assurances that he was trying to move half of Futenma’s MV-22s off Okinawa. However, Nakaima lost Sunday’s election to an anti-base candidate.

If shifting the Ospreys elsewhere were to happen, Saga would be a likely destination, should it get facilities built to accommodate the aircraft. Marine Osprey pilots and support staff would most likely be asked to train the JGSDF as well. Furukawa said use of the airport by the U.S. military is not being considered at this time, as he has no information on potential shared use, but rumors have swirled for some time.

The Japanese have courted Saga for deployment of tilt-rotor aircraft because their newly formed Amphibious Rapid Mobile Deployments Brigade — envisioned as a Japanese version of the Marine Corps — is stationed nearby at the JGSDF Ainoura base in Sasebo, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. Other major JASDF and JMSDF units are based in northern Kyushu.

“I acknowledge that [deployment of the JSDF tilt-rotor aircraft] would not affect the operations of the airport today … as well as in foreseeable future,” Furukawa said. “I believe that a municipality should basically cooperate with the central government for its security policies.”

Furukawa’s position was conditional on acceptance by local area residents and assurances of the aircraft’s safety.

His comments were immediately applauded by Tokyo.

“As head of the Ministry of Defense and the Self-Defense forces, I believe it is a big step forward,” Defense Minister Akinori Eto said Tuesday. “It is our duty to make a continued effort to offer an in-depth explanation to gain the acceptance of the Saga prefectural government and its people.”

Ultimately, the decision whether to approve acceptance of tilt-rotor aircraft will be left up to his successor, Furukawa said, although he hopes his commitment will be respected. The third-term governor is expected to leave office soon to run for a seat in the Japan’s parliament.

Still, the Marine Corps said Thursday it remain committed to keeping their Ospreys on Okinawa.

In a statement, Marine officials said they would only entertain routing the MV-22 through Saga for short-term engagements and they intend to keep their two MV-22 squadrons at Futenma until a replacement facility is operational.

“There is no plan to station the MV-22B Osprey at Saga Airport,” Marine Corps officials said in a statement to Stars and Stripes.

“We, the Marines, train and fight as a Marine Air-Ground Task Force. The aircraft which are currently based at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa, including the MV-22B Osprey, will be the same units based at the Futenma Replacement Facility, as they need to be very close to where the ground forces are based… The selected location off Henoko, as proposed by the GoJ, is the only viable solution.”

Japan’s Defense Ministry also released a graphic that seemed to throw water on moving the Marine MV-22 to Saga. The Osprey would not be able to reach all of Okinawa from Saga unless it was able to refuel, which may not be an option under certain contingencies.

Ospreys have become a rallying cry for Okinawan protesters over the years due to several crashes during its development. Despite sporadic incidents involving the aircraft in recent years, its pilots swear by its performance and reliability in combat and in disaster relief operations.

“The MV-22B is a U.S.-Japan alliance asset, enhancing the U.S. ability to assist in the defense of Japan as well as to respond rapidly to natural disasters,” Marine officials said.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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