Hirokazu Nakaima, governor of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, has been making headlines this summer for his persistent calls to cancel the United States' planned deployment of 24 MV-22 Osprey aircraft to its Futenma base due to concerns over the aircraft’s safety record.
Though the Osprey suffered from a string of high-profile issues since it first began testing in the early 90s (30 fatalities prior to becoming operational in 2007), improvements to its design have led its modern variants to see deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a planned increase to at least 450 units from today’s fleet of 110. Confidence in the odd-looking, tilt-rotor craft has steadily grown as it has proved itself capable in combat situations, to the extent that the Osprey has attracted the interest of foreign buyers such as Canada and the UAE, and is even planned as a replacement for Marine One.
Still, two recent incidents — one in June and another in April of 2012, the former which resulted in two fatalities — are being used as examples of the aircraft’s unsuitability for deployment among dense population regions.
With 74 percent of the United States’ military capacity concentrated on Okinawa, both Japan’s national government as well as the US walk a narrow line between larger defense interests, and those of the local population — which are often buzzed by noisy American aircraft (and sometimes worse) flying in close quarters to their communities.
The residents of Okinawa’s chain of islands have long felt overly burdened by the presence of American bases, though efforts to disperse these to other regions throughout Japan have proved politically impractical in the past. Ultimately, the level of disapproval within the prefecture, which is always of concern to Tokyo, has led the US to plan relocating thousands of marines from Okinawa to Guam and elsewhere.
While Okinawans have latched onto the safety record of the Osprey, it seems likelier that the aircraft’s recent incidents are only playing into longstanding frustrations.
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