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Why is Japan Suddenly Freaked Out by the Osprey? (Updated)

by Ward Carroll on July 2, 2012

As reported by our sister blog DoD Buzz, last week the Japanese government balked at USMC basing a squadron of V-22s in Okinawa — a development that certainly surprised the Marine Corps (and DoD) and demonstrated that, for all of its flight hours across the globe, the airplane’s bad reputation still lingers.

Or does it?

Some defense industry insiders claim that the hubub around V-22 basing in and around Japan has little to do with concerns about aircraft safety and a lot to do with the politics of Okinawa versus the Japanese mainland.  “You have one percent of the population hosting 74 percent of the country’s military capability,” said one defense official.  Apparently the governor of Okinawa is looking for any reason to make an issue out of U.S. military basing in his region — and the V-22 gave him a couple of reasons in recent months. 

An MV-22 crashed April 22 near Agadir, Morocco while participating in Exercise African Lion, and a CV-22 Osprey crashed June 13 during a training mission north of Navarre, Fla., injuring five crew members.

While the mishap investigations are not final, DoD has allowed that the Marine Corps crash was not caused by a mechanical failure, which could be code for “pilot error”  or another factor like weather or a bird strike, etc.  That is ironically good news in the case of foreign government concerns in that it says that the airplane isn’t inherently dangerous.

 The Osprey’s checkered test history lives in defense procurement and military aviation infamy, no doubt.  But the Marine Corps is quick to point out that — in spite of its extensive time in test and development — the V-22 is still relatively young from an operational point of view.  (The Corps just surpassed 115,000 flight hours on the MV-22B variant and SOCOM (AFSOC) has flown 25,000 flight hours.)  The Osprey has done a number of high-profile ops, including the rescue of a downed aviator in Libya last year.

At this writing the first squadron of WESTPAC-based Ospreys are headed for Japan aboard a commercial ship.  Once they arrive they’ll fly a couple of post-transit check hops out of MCAS Iwakuni — and that’s it.  At that point they’ll sit and wait for the results of both mishap investigations to be finalized and presented to the Japanese government, which should happen around late July.  The ultimate plan is to have both USMC and SOCOM Ospreys forward-deployed out of Futenma Air Base in Okinawa.

Some airplanes outgrow their bad reputations.  (The Tomcat comes to mind.)  Others never do.  (The Harrier comes to mind.)  What camp will the Osprey ultimately fall into?

Breaking news:  Okinawa’s governor rejects the plan.

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