23.12.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Сonsequences of the Osprey accident in Okinawa

3443423423On the night of December 13 this year, following a failed attempt at landing, an American tilt-rotor aircraft, the MV-22 Osprey, crashed near the coast of Okinawa. Two out of five crew members were injured. Judging by the photos from the scene, the machine (worth more than $ 100 million.) will be handed over to the scrapyard.

Generally speaking, this event can be viewed as a normal occurrence during the operation of any military equipment by any army in the world. However, in this case the incident immediately provoked comments from the sphere of “high politics.”

The Japanese Defense Minister, Tomomi Inada, gave the first statement, in which he particularly noted, “It is unfortunate that the accident occurred at a time when the population of Okinawa and other regions of Japan have begun paying more attention to the Osprey’s safety.”

At first glance however, this statement is rather strange. It seems as if alluding to the fact that Japan does not have any other significant events and problems that the majority of the population should be “especially concerned with”, and other important public statements from leading cabinet members (as well as the US forces high command in Japan and the US ambassador in Tokyo, Caroline Kennedy).

Even though other important issues certainly exist, this particular incident directly deals with one of the key issues related to the complexities surrounding the US-Japanese alliance. Which, in turn, (and contrary to the popular belief), have become more complicated in recent years. After the unexpected (and unpleasant for the Japanese leadership) outcome of the US presidential elections, bilateral relations between the two powers have crept into a zone of uncertainty.

The above statement by the Japanese Defense Minister about the seemingly minor incident reflected the shock that suddenly gripped the Japanese-American political circles, who reiterated statements like: “This was quite inappropriate for us.” Apparently, the current leadership of Okinawa, which, after the election in November 2014 of the new governor, Takeshi Onaga, is in open confrontation with the Central Government of Japan, holds similar (but with quite a different tone) views.

The reason for the conflict is the issue of the relocation of the US military air base – Futenma (on which the same Ospreys continue to take off and land on a daily basis), located in the heart of the densely populated Okinawan city of Ginowan.

As the inhabitants of the island are also calling for, T. Onaga wants the bases to be removed from not only the city, but in general, from Okinawa. On the other hand, the central government has started constructing a new site for Ospreys in a less populated coastal area of ​​the same territory of Okinawa, in accordance with an agreement with Washington in 2006.

The Governor of the island is using every excuse to stop the works that are already underway. In particular, he is mostly concerned about the damage that can be inflicted (not only by the construction work, but also by the potential for tilt-rotor aircraft accidents) on the unique flora and fauna of the surrounding water basins of the island.

Compounding this is the fact that, although after 30 years of going through a difficult period, MV-22 Osprey’s current developments are demonstrating high reliability. However, like any mechanism, the tilt-rotor aircraft is not immune to accidents, all of which help T. Onaga compete against Tokyo.

As previously noted in the NEO, the Okinawan leadership exploited the penultimate Osprey accident that occurred six years ago on the distant Hawaii, as they say, “to the maximum“.

However, after reaching an arrangement with the US 10 years ago, the Government of Japan started working on developing a new site that is located near the small town of Nago, which has a population of about 60 thousand inhabitants.

A year later, immediately after his inauguration, the new Governor of Okinawa, T. Onaga, cancelled the decision to allocate land for construction that had been adopted in 2013 by the former governor (on request of the central government). Since then, the legality of the procedure for this cancellation has been the subject of litigations between the central government and the Governor of Okinawa. The parties subsequently passed through all the various courts until the case was finally presented to the Japanese Supreme Court.

Early December this year, all hearings on the merits were discontinued, and on December 20, the final deliberation was announced. The Okinawans themselves were largely pessimistic about the nature of this deliberation.

However, the depressed opponents to the government’s plans to retain some Futenma bases on the island clearly supported the Osprey accident of December 13. The local parliament “remembered” the long-standing warnings about the possibility of “something like that” occurring. Once again, the Government of Japan was informed that “it was taking on a huge responsibility” by allowing the construction of a new site for the base on Okinawa.

This means that Tokyo views the last MV-22 Osprey accident as extremely out-of-sequence. Moreover, the “Osprey” happened to fall down just in the vicinity of the area where the work is currently underway in the shallow waters close to the shore, that is, in the very same “flora and fauna”.

However, Commander of US forces in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. L.D. Nicholson, twisted the people who came to him with a protest against the deputy prime minister of local government: “The Japanese should already be happy that their local residents’ homes and they themselves were not damaged or harmed.

In connection with this, in a subsequent interview with reporters, the official noted “the obvious colonial mentality” of the American Commander.

In an attempt to thwart a new wave of protests by the Okinawans, the Japanese Ministry of Defense stated that “according to the statistics”, the MV-22 Osprey accident had not been at a greater risk of occurrence than that of other US aircraft stationed on the same Okinawan territory. In this case, Japan’s Ministry of Defense is also obviously seeking to protect its own interests, as plans had already been made to purchase similar devices for the Japanese army. The current same accident in Okinawa will undoubtedly complicate negotiations with local Saga authorities, who own the civilian airport on which the first group of the Japanese Ospreys is supposed to be placed.

It should again be emphasized that the “price tag” that was instigated by the recent incident with the Osprey MV-22, significantly outweighs the cost of this equipment and the actual cost of treating the injured pilots.

Since the issue centers around the impact of the December 13 accident on the entire framework of the US-Japanese alliance, it is generally not measured in terms of monetary value. This explains the increased nervousness surrounding this event among both countries’ responsible politicians.

In particular, there is no doubt that the (hypothetical) success of the Okinawa leadership in a lawsuit with the country’s central government over the fate of “Futenma” would be the beginning of the struggle for the complete withdrawal of all the other military bases (both American and Japanese) from the island, upon which 20% of the island’s economic turnover is currently derived.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for online-magazine “New Eastern Outlook