Okinawa decries reported plans to locate Ospreys at Futenma
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Okinawa government said it will oppose any plans to locate the U.S. Marine Corps’ dual-rotor Osprey aircraft on the island following reports that the Department of Defense is set to notify Japanese leaders of the change later this week.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima called the aircraft “dangerous” and said it should not be operated out of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in a densely populated area of the island where local opposition and a helicopter crash in 2004 have raised tensions between the U.S. and Japan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Japan Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa will both attend a security summit in Singapore this week. Gates plans to tell Kitazawa that the Marine Corps will begin moving Ospreys to Futenma in 2012 to replace the aging fleet of Sea Knight helicopters, according to Kyodo News, which cited unnamed sources.
“The Osprey had many accidents in its development stage, giving us an image that the aircraft is accident prone therefore dangerous,” Nakaima said Monday during a press conference, according to Tatsuo Oyakawa, chief of the Okinawa prefecture military affairs office. “At this point when the (Japanese) government provides us with no information on the aircraft, I have no other choice but to oppose the reported plan.”
The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and fly like a propeller airplane, was criticized during development for its high maintenance needs and poor reliability. A crash during a test run killed 7 crewmembers and passengers in 1992, and 23 Marines died in two separate crashes during 2000.
It was put into combat service in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2009 and so far suffered only one reported deadly accident that killed four during a night landing in Afghanistan in April 2010.
The Osprey can carry more cargo and go faster and farther than the Sea Knight helicopter, which was first put in service during the Vietnam War, and the newly developed hybrid is set to slowly phase out the older bird.
But it is unclear what the Marine Corps plans for the Sea Knights at the Futenma, which is targeted for closure and relocation in the coming years to a site farther north on Okinawa. The Marine Corps did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
Deployment of Ospreys would surely ignite local opposition across Okinawa and further complicate the political problems revolving around the air station relocation and a larger plan for an historic shift of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
President Barack Obama and Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan affirmed last week that the plans to relocate Futenma and realignment of U.S. forces would not be changed despite sharp criticism from Congress and federal auditors over the potential costs.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the military plans “unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable” last month.
Also, the Government Accountability Office issued a report strongly criticizing the U.S. military for not developing accurate cost estimates for the shift of forces, which includes relocating Futenma and moving 8,600 Okinawa Marines to Guam. The plans could cost the U.S. and its allies $46 billion over the next decade, according to the GAO.
As questions rise over the plan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gates are expected to meet later in June with Kitazawa and Japan Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto as part of an annually U.S.-Japan security alliance gathering.
The meeting is likely to shed light on how the agreements on Futenma and the realignment might proceed despite persistent problems.
Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.