Camp Foster, Okinawa — Japan said Wednesday it has approved a controversial deployment of Ospreys to Okinawa, adding that it believes the Marine Corps' hybrid aircraft is safe despite deep public concern.
The announcement came after a U.S.-Japan working committee struck an agreement calling for the Marine Corps to avoid low-altitude flying and to conduct most conversions of the MV-22 from helicopter to airplane mode within airspace over military bases, according to a copy of the bilateral memorandum released by Japan's defense ministry.
But Okinawa leaders and protest organizers remained skeptical. A recent Osprey crash in Africa that killed two Marines and another in Florida that injured crew members have stoked fears of similar incidents once the aircraft replaces aging CH-46 Sea Knight dual-rotor helicopters at the Futenma air station.
"We believe that the agreement made between the U.S. and Japan will ensure safe operations that will be conducted by giving the maximum consideration to the daily lives of people in Japan," Japan Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto told a joint news conference with Foreign Affairs Minister Koichiro Gemba at the prime minister's office.
Gemba stressed the strategic need for the Osprey, calling it indispensable for security in the region and an improvement to the existing U.S. fleet charged with defending Japan.
Japan conducted its own independent probes of the two Osprey crashes and agreed with U.S. military investigators that both were caused by pilot errors and not mechanical malfunctions.
The U.S.-Japan joint committee confirmed those results and also set some operational guidelines to increase public safety, though the military is only obligated to follow the rules when they are practical and do not conflict with mission requirements or other safety measures, according to the document, which can be viewed online.
The Marine Corps must try to limit flights below 500 feet, make mode conversions only over U.S. bases, steer clear of landmarks like schools and hospitals, and limit night operations, the two allies agreed.
The service said it had no comment on the agreement and no new information on when in October the Ospreys could begin flying from the Okinawa base. A squadron of the aircraft was shipped to the Marine Corps air station in Iwakuni in July but has remained on the ground pending approval to fly. A spokesman for Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda said Morimoto has offered the mayor a test flight.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was pleased by the agreement with Japan after meeting Monday with Morimoto to discuss the importance of the planned deployment.
"The Osprey will provide a critical capability that strengthens the United States' ability to defend Japan, perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, and fulfill other alliance roles," Little said in a statement. "With twice the speed, three times the range and four times the payload, the Osprey will make a major contribution in upgrading the capabilities of the (U.S.-Japan) alliance."
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said he remained unconvinced about the Osprey's safety and is disappointed by the agreement.
"The announcement of the preventive measures addressed almost nothing to the questions from the Okinawa prefectural government concerning the safety of the aircraft," Nakaima said in a statement.
Many on the island doubt U.S. safety claims and have feared for decades that the Marine Corps air traffic at Futenma will result in a deadly crash in the surrounding city of Ginowan. In 2004, a Marine helicopter went down the campus of a nearby university, causing smoke and flames but no serious injuries.
Okinawans have been waging a political fight to have the air station moved off the island, but the U.S. and Japanese governments have refused to reconsider a stalled plan to relocate it farther north to a less-populated area of the island.
Takashi Kishimoto was an organizer of a Sept. 9 anti-Osprey rally on Okinawa that attracted tens of thousands of opponents. He said the agreement was another instance of the island's opposition to U.S. military operations being ignored by both countries' governments.
"Restrictions on the night operations, avoiding flying over populated areas and such are already in place for flight operations at Futenma and Kadena," the two main U.S. air fields on Okinawa, Kishimoto said.
"Have they ever been observed? No. For operational reasons, such promises have been constantly broken," he said. "We remain resolved to oppose the arrival of the Osprey under any circumstances."