In the absence of conclusive findings about the cause of a recent accident, the Japanese government has given the green light to the U.S. military to resume aerial refueling drills for Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft.
On the night of Dec. 13, an Osprey was severely damaged when it was forced to ditch off the coast of Nago in Okinawa Prefecture. According to the U.S. military, the aircraft's propeller was damaged upon contact with the refueling hose during a mid-air drill.
The U.S. military explained there was no structural problem with the aircraft itself. But if that is the case, why did the propeller come in contact with the refueling hose? The cause of the accident remains undetermined.
What is most disappointing is the Japanese government's readiness to accommodate the U.S. military's wishes while turning a deaf ear to the voice of the people of Okinawa protesting the rapid resumption of Osprey operations.
The Diet is scheduled to start its regular session on Jan. 20. The ruling, as well as opposition parties, must thoroughly debate the implications of the December accident.
Aerial refueling, which dramatically extends the aircraft's cruising range, is a difficult job that requires highly skilled crew members to perform.
The U.S. military explained to the Defense Ministry that the Dec. 13 accident was probably caused by a combination of factors: some human factor, such as inter-crew communication; an environmental factor, such as air turbulence or rain; and the complexity of night aerial refueling work.
According to this explanation, does it not mean that similar accidents may recur, subject to the crew's caliber and weather conditions?
As for the Osprey's structural problems, some experts warn that the coupling connecting the hose extending from the refueling aircraft and the fuel inlet pipe of the aircraft receiving the fuel is positioned close to a propeller, rendering the hose vulnerable to being snagged by it.
Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, no Japanese organization may be involved in determining the cause of an accident. In short, since the Japanese government can only listen to explanations given by the U.S. military, how can the government be responsible for the safety of its citizens? Various matters need to be reviewed, including the manner in which information is disclosed to the public.
The U.S. military promises never to conduct aerial refueling drills over land. But such operating rules need to be clearly spelled out. And a system must be established to ensure that the voices of Japanese citizens are fully conveyed to the U.S. military.
Osprey are now flying to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and will be deployed shortly at Camp Kisarazu of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force in Chiba Prefecture.
Deployment plans are also being firmed up at U.S. Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo and Saga airport for the Self-Defense Forces in Saga Prefecture.
Osprey problems are no longer Okinawa's alone. They cannot be left just to the Japanese government and the U.S. military to handle.
The Diet's responsibility is being tested on how it faces the challenge.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 11