Getting to the Heart of the Osprey Controversy


Objections from some in Japan meant that plans to deploy the latest “Osprey” transport aircraft to a US base in Japan were delayed by two months. The objections focused on safety issues—but what was the real nature of the debate? Stimson Center Senior Associate Tatsumi Yuki reports.

Controversy in Japan concerning US Marine Corps plans to deploy the MV-22 vertical takeoff and landing transport aircraft, better known as Ospreys, to the Marines’ air station in Futenma, Okinawa, have cast a considerable shadow over the Japan-US alliance. On September 19, Defense Minister Morimoto Satoshi and Foreign Minister Genba Kōichirō gave the official go-ahead for the Ospreys to fly within Japanese airspace. But the Osprey controversy took up big chunks of time when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited Japan in July, and again when Defense Minister Morimoto was in the United States in August. Morimoto was even treated to a short flight on an Osprey during his visit.

At the center of the controversy are two recent accidents involving Ospreys: one that took place in Morocco in April involving an MV-22 aircraft, and another involving a CV-22 aircraft that crashed in Florida in June. The Marine Corps (in the case of the Morocco accident) and Air Force (in Florida) issued final reports declaring that the accidents were not due to any structural faults in the aircraft. In late August the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced the findings of its own expert investigation, which concluded that the accident in Morocco had been caused by human error.

As a result of this controversy, it took nearly two months after the helicopters were delivered to the Iwakuni air base in Yamaguchi Prefecture before the Japanese government finally gave the all-clear for the flights to go ahead. In this article, I want to take a look at the background to the debate. How did the deployment of some new aircraft become such a bone of contention?

“100% Safe”: A Reasonable Demand?

The chief concerns about the Osprey have been about safety. Certainly, the Osprey has a reputation as an accident-prone aircraft. More than 30 lives were lost during the development and the test-flight stages, earning the helicopter a grim reputation as the “widow-maker.” Even since entering formal deployment in 2007 following a major redesign from 2001 to 2005, the helicopter has hardly been a stranger to accident. This year alone, the accidents in Morocco and Florida both resulted in fatalities.

Although it is common to talk about “the Osprey” as a single entity, however, it is important to note there are actually two different variants currently in use: the CV model used by Air Force Special Operations and the MV variant used by the Marine Corps. The two variants have quite different safety records. For the CV, the incident rate as of June 2012 was equivalent to 13.47 incidents per 100,000 hours of flight, although the aircraft had logged only 22,266 hours in the air at this stage. But for the MV model used by the Marines—the type to be deployed in Okinawa—the rate is much lower, at just 1.93 incidents per 100,000 flight hours. Incidentally, the accident rate for the CH-53D transport helicopter that crashed at Okinawa International University in 2004 is 4.51 incidents per 100,000 hours flown.

Another question we need to ask when considering safety is whether the position of the Japanese government, which insists on “100% safety,” is reasonable. In the United States the phrase “minimizing risk” is often used in discussions about military affairs and national security. As this phrase makes clear, the approach asks: How can we reduce risk to the minimum levels possible, given that there is no such thing as 100% safety? The emphasis is on reducing risk as much as possible, while putting a robust system in place for dealing with an accident if and when it happens.

The Japanese side, by contrast, continues to insist on “100%” safety. This stance makes it impossible to carry out open and levelheaded discussions about necessary risk avoidance measures and the steps that would need to be taken in the event of an accident. Such a stance also makes it more difficult to assess emergency procedures in advance or to make clear where responsibility lies. The result is that responses often come too late. There is no such thing as 100% safety in any field of human activity. Although I understand the personal feelings of people who say they are opposed to the Osprey deployment without a guarantee that the aircraft are 100% safe, I am far from convinced that this is a reasonable position for a national government to take.

The Lack of Viable Alternative

Since the problems with the Osprey emerged, even some of those responsible for politics on the national level have called for the planned deployment of the Ospreys to be postponed or scrapped altogether. Setting aside for now the opposition from local government leaders and those in the prefectural assembly and National Diet elected to represent the people whose lives would actually be affected by the Ospreys, I have one question for others who insist that they will oppose the plan until they receive a guarantee that the Ospreys are 100% safe or until the concerns of the local community have been addressed: What do you propose as an alternative?

Discussions between the Japanese and US governments on the subject of realignment of the US Forces in Japan that lasted from 2001 to 2005 referred only in vague terms to “light aircraft.” But the United States already had plans to deploy Ospreys to Okinawa. This is why the American side made such an issue of the length of the runways at the replacement facility to be used after the relocation of the Marine Corps airbase away from Futenma. In the US-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation agreed in 2006, the Liberal Democratic Party–led Japanese government agreed with the United States to complete a Futenma replacement facility by 2014, and then close the Futenma base once the new facility was fully operational. Even if a crash did take place during takeoff or landing at the replacement facility of the coast of Henoko, the aircraft would almost certainly fall into the sea or, even in the worst-case scenario, into Camp Schwab. The risk to the local population would have been kept to a minimum.

If the 2006 agreement had proceeded according to plan, even with delays, the length of time in which Ospreys were operating from Futenma would have been short indeed. But the Realignment Plan was essentially scrapped after the Democratic Party of Japan took office in 2009. The new DPJ prime minister Hatoyama Yukio spent nine months searching for an alternative before eventually going back to the original Henoko agreement. Meanwhile, his public pledge to relocate the new replacement base “at the very least outside Okinawa” had raised hopes among the population and hardened local attitudes on the base relocation issue. As a result, there is currently no prospect in sight of a breakthrough in the Futenma impasse. In this sense, the DPJ’s blundering and ill-considered approach to the issue is one of the reasons why the problem has become so difficult to resolve.

Japan’s Imaginary Veto

The fact is that under the terms of the Japan-US security agreement as it stands, Japan has no right to refuse measures such as the Osprey deployment, which are covered under the terms of the agreement as upgrades to US Forces equipment. Notwithstanding this, the US Department of Defense promptly sent reports on the accidents in April and June to Japanese investigation teams, and even placed a ban on all Osprey flights in Japan until the Japanese government gave a formal OK. This is despite the fact that elsewhere in the world both the Marine Corps and Air Force variants of the Ospreys continue to fly normally. This should be sufficient proof that the American side is sincerely doing all it can on this issue. By demanding even more special consideration than it has already received, the Japanese government is trying to shelve the confusion brought about by the change of government in Japan and flaunt its own perceptions of safety, which are hardly reasonable to begin with. It is a highly irresponsible performance.

There is another factor that should be considered. The Osprey deployment strategy was planned after taking into account a number of serious scenarios that could affect Japan’s defense and the wider East Asian region. If the Japanese side is really serious about its opposition to the plan, the Self-Defense Forces will need to make up for the loss of strategic capability caused to the Marines by the fact that they are unable to deploy the Ospreys as planned. Long-distance and strategic transportation are two areas in which Japan’s Self-Defense Forces urgently need to strengthen their capabilities. In order not only to improve their own capabilities but to shoulder part of the responsibility currently assumed by US forces as well, an increase in defense spending would be unavoidable. Are Japan’s politicians really prepared to make that commitment?

The Overreaction of the Japanese Media

Finally, a few words about the over-the-top coverage of the Osprey malfunctions in the Japanese media—in stark contrast with the situation in the United States itself, where the accidents barely merited a mention in the media. The emergency landings that took place in North Carolina on July 11 and September 6 are a good example. In both cases, the incidents attracted almost no attention in the American media. I am skeptical about the kind of reporting that takes events like this, hardly reported in the local media in the country where they happened, and sensationalizes them to give the impression that serious accidents had taken place. Reporting like this does nothing but fan the flames of public anxiety in Japan.

(Originally written in Japanese on September 19, 2012. Title background photo by the Sankei Shimbun.)

diplomacy United States Democratic Party of Japan foreign policy Okinawa Futenma national security osprey forces