Transparency clouds Osprey acceptance in Japan
TOKYO — In the morning of Nov. 8, an MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft appeared in the sky over Oshima, an island just off the coast of Kesennuma, Japan.
The Osprey from the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture was taking part in the Michinoku Alert 2014 drill, an exercise designed to help practice the response needed should the island become cut off due to a massive earthquake. After the Osprey dropped off water and blankets, two people playing the roles of patients seriously injured in an ensuing tsunami were loaded onto the aircraft and transported to a Ground Self-Defense Force facility in the city of Sendai.
After Oshima was destroyed by tsunami and fire after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, U.S. Marines based in Okinawa Prefecture provided assistance as part of Operation Tomodachi. The Marines cleared debris and were engaged in other disaster relief activities on the island.
Several hundred island residents came to catch a glimpse of the tilt-rotor Osprey on that day.
"I was really grateful that the U.S. military quickly came to help us after the island was isolated following the quake disaster," said a 74-year-old man whose home was swept away by the March 11, 2011, tsunami. "I hope they will conduct all the exercises they need to do, after ensuring their aircraft are safe to operate."
One year has passed since joint Japan-U.S. exercises using Ospreys started as part of efforts to reduce the burden shouldered by Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces based in Japan.
A growing number of local governments on the main islands of Japan have indicated a willingness to accept exercises involving Ospreys, and residents' resistance to the aircraft flying in their skies appears to be gradually fading. Despite this, the government will need to carefully explain the importance of operating the Osprey to cement acceptance of and support for the aircraft.
The first joint exercise involving Osprey on the main islands was held at the GSDF's Aibano Training Area in Shiga Prefecture in October 2013. Many civilians came to observe the aircraft displayed at an air show held in Sapporo in July, and at an air review ceremony held at Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture in October. Last month in Wakayama Prefecture, an Osprey took part for the first time in a disaster exercise organized by a local government.
"Every time an Osprey flies over the main islands, the burden on Okinawa should be reduced," a senior Defense Ministry official said.
The government has been pushing ahead with carrying out Osprey exercises over the main islands because it thinks Okinawa Prefecture is bearing too great a burden by hosting 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
As well as moving these exercises to other areas, the Japanese and U.S. governments will transfer all 15 KC-130 air refueling tankers from Futenma to the U.S. Marine Corps' Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Local governments around Japan have started to discuss whether they will be able to help reduce Okinawa's burden. In June, the village assembly of Shinto, which is home to the GSDF's 12th Brigade, passed a resolution stating it "would accept training and other exercises involving Osprey aircraft if it contributes to easing the burden" shouldered by Okinawa Prefecture. Other municipalities that have adopted similar resolutions include Iwakuni city and the towns of Suo-Oshima and Shintomi.
According to a senior Defense Ministry official, Osprey "will fly in the skies above the main islands about two times a month."
A 63-year-old woman who operates a real estate agency near the Futenma base doubts whether this will have much impact.
"The aircraft have recently been conducting night flights above residential areas, which I have at times felt were dangerous," the woman said. "I appreciate the government's stance of calling for local governments on the main islands to accept more exercises, but I still don't feel that the number of flights here has decreased."
The Defense Ministry plans to introduce 17 Ospreys into the SDF from fiscal 2015 and is considering deploying them at Saga Airport in Saga Prefecture. The government also has decided to offer the GSDF's Kisarazu base in Chiba Prefecture as a maintenance site for U.S. military Ospreys. Given these developments, flights by Japanese and U.S. Ospreys over the main Japanese islands are certain to increase in the years ahead.
However, concerns over the safety and noise pollution generated by the aircraft remain deep-rooted in these areas. After the U.S. military notifies the Defense Ministry about movements of its Ospreys, this information is passed on to local governments concerned, but many details are not revealed to the public. To reinforce support for the Ospreys, the government will need to explain more carefully about the aircraft.
Question marks also remain about the willingness of the U.S. military to disclose information. One aircraft that took off from the Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa Prefecture on Nov. 7 to join the Michinoku Alert exercise had to turn back to base. The SDF inquired as to why the aircraft returned to Atsugi but reportedly did not receive a proper explanation from the U.S. military.
A senior Defense Ministry official suggested such information had not always been readily forthcoming from Japan's ally.
"The U.S. side has a strong tendency to want to conceal flight information about the aircraft, so we will need to press it more strongly to disclose such details," the official said.