By ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — The United States is moving ahead with plans to deploy its first Osprey military transport aircraft to Japan, despite strong opposition from residents over safety issues following two recent crashes, officials said Wednesday.
The first 12 Ospreys left San Diego on a ship bound for Japan on Sunday. They will be assembled at a Marine base in the city of Iwakuni before being deployed to the southern island of Okinawa, which has a large and often sensitive U.S. military presence.
The plan has created an outcry in both locations following recent crashes of the tilt-rotor aircraft in Morocco and Florida. Japan's Defense Ministry has not announced when the ship is due to arrive, but an Iwakuni official said it would likely be later this month.
"Our position remains unchanged that until we are assured of the safety of these aircraft, we oppose having them here," said Yusuke Yamasaki, an official in charge of base affairs in Iwakuni.
Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto traveled to Okinawa and Iwakuni over the weekend to try to quell the uproar, but was met with an angry response.
According to Japanese media reports, Okinawa's governor told him the plan was unacceptable and suggested all U.S. bases there should be closed if the Osprey deployment leads to any accidents. Okinawa hosts about 19,000 Marines and most of the 50,000 U.S. troops based throughout Japan.
Local approval is not essential for the project to go ahead, but the fracas is an embarrassment for Japan's central government ahead of a visit later this week by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In a briefing with senior Japanese officials last week, the Pentagon said the crashes did not appear to be caused by mechanical failure.
An Air Force CV-22 Osprey crashed last month, injuring all five airmen aboard during a training mission at Florida's Eglin Air Force Base. The Morocco crash, in April, left two Marines dead.
Because of the local concerns, no flight operations will be conducted in Japan until the results of the crash investigations by the Department of Defense are presented to the Tokyo government, which it expects to do in August.
The Pentagon said Osprey flights will continue as usual elsewhere and expressed confidence that Japan's report will be positive.
"The MV-22 Osprey has an excellent safety record," it said in a statement. "Basing the Osprey in Okinawa will significantly strengthen the United States' ability to provide for the defense of Japan, perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and fulfill other alliance roles."
The $70 million Osprey is the U.S. military's latest-generation transport aircraft. The Air Force and Marines operate a total of about 110 of them.
The aircraft combines airplane-like wings with rotors that allow it to take off and land like a helicopter. Its engines roll forward in flight, allowing it to fly twice as fast as a standard helicopter.
An early version of the Osprey crashed in 1991 and another crash killed seven the following year. In 2000, 19 Marines were killed when an Osprey crashed during a training exercise in Arizona, and a crash in North Carolina killed four Marines in December of that year.
In 2010, three service members and a civilian contractor were killed in the crash of an Air Force version of the aircraft in Afghanistan.