US, Japan still plan to hold talks about Okinawa aircraft safety
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 24, 2018
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The United States and Japan have renewed an agreement to discuss the possibility of allowing Japanese officials onto Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to verify the safety of U.S. military aircraft.
At the request of former Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, U.S. Forces Japan officials had planned to host a Feb. 1 “information exchange,” after a spate of emergency landings and other incidents involving Marine helicopters.
But the meeting was postponed by the U.S. over a need for more preparation time, according to a Kyodo News report that cited an unnamed senior Japanese Defense Ministry official. It was never rescheduled.
The issue has become amplified in Japan over the past few months because it is being billed as Japanese inspections of U.S. military aircraft, something USFJ officials have said will not happen.
Last week, new Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya — who replaced Onodera in a reshuffling of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet — met with USFJ’s commander, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, and the pair agreed to hold talks in the future regarding the exchange, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.
“We both agreed that there should be a meeting between subject matter experts first then … we should find the best way [to conduct the safety inspections],” Iwaya told reporters Friday. He said the matter was under review by his staff.
USFJ officials said this week they are working diligently with Japan’s Defense Ministry to finalize the exchange’s “content, timing and location.” They expect details to be finalized soon.
“USFJ and the Ministry of Defense have agreed to conduct a subject matter expert exchange between U.S. and Japan Self Defense Force experts to discuss aviation maintenance procedures of both sides,” USFJ spokesman Air Force Col. John Hutcheson told Stars and Stripes in an email Wednesday. “These discussions are intended to share information and enhance the safety of both nations’ flight operations … to be clear, USFJ has not agreed and will not agree to any inspections of US military aircraft.”
Hutcheson added the delay has not impacted the U.S.-Japan alliance nor has it eroded trust or confidence between the partner nations.
“We continue to have a strong relationship with our Japanese partners based on mutual trust and understanding,” he said. “Discussions related to this issue haven’t changed that.”
The idea for verifying the safety of U.S. military aircraft on Okinawa was first broached by Onodera on Jan. 30 in wake of a spate of aircraft mishaps and emergency landings.
In August 2017, three Marines were killed when an Okinawa-based MV-22 Osprey crashed off Australia’s coast during a training exercise. Two months later, a fire forced a 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Super Stallion to land in a farmer’s field outside Okinawa’s Northern Training Area. The aircraft was an almost total loss.
On Dec. 7, a plastic part thought to belong to a U.S. military helicopter was found on the roof of an Okinawa day care center. On Dec. 13, a CH-53E Super Stallion’s window fell from the aircraft and landed on an elementary school sports field adjacent to Futenma’s fence line, narrowly missing playing children.
That incident was followed by three emergency landings by Marine helicopters in January.
More incidents have followed.
Onodera requested that Japan Ground Self-Defense Force aircraft maintenance specialists be allowed to visit Marine Corps Air Station Futenma for a briefing on the safety of the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters involved in the emergency landings, verify that any safety issues had been addressed, and then report back to his office to analyze their findings.
Onodera was careful not to call it Japanese inspections of U.S. military aircraft, but that is how his comments have been interpreted. The level of involvement of Japanese inspectors in verifying the state of inspections and maintenance of U.S. military aircraft remains unclear.
“The Ministry of Defense will promptly confirm and verify the state of inspections and maintenance conducted by the U.S. side utilizing the Self-Defense Forces’ professional and technical knowledge,” he said in January.
As late as last week, Japanese state broadcaster NHK was referring to the exchange as “joint safety inspections” of U.S. helicopters.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense spokesman said Tuesday that the holdup regarding the exchange was over “difficulties in scheduling,” not objections from the U.S. military. The length and conditions of the exchange are also pending.
NHK reported that Iwaya and Martinez also discussed the recent deployment of five Air Force CV-22 Ospreys to Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, and that Iwaya said Japan wants to “ensure the safety” of the aircraft.
Iwaya’s spokesman declined to verify those comments, nor would he explain what would be required to ensure the aircraft’s safety. USFJ officials likewise declined to “disclose the specific content of private discussions between U.S. and Japanese senior leaders.”
Japan began the procurement process for 17 of its own Ospreys in fiscal year 2015 and is slated to receive the first later this year.
“The U.S. has been fully transparent with the Government of Japan about the capabilities and safety of the V-22 Osprey, and indeed the Japan Ground Self Defense Force is in the process of fielding its own Ospreys to enhance Japan’s defensive capabilities,” Hutcheson said. “Further, in 2012, both governments confirmed the safety of Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey in a bilateral memorandum issued by the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee.”