Japan and the United States are considering using the U.S. military's controversial MV-22 Osprey aircraft in a joint disaster drill planned for October, Japanese government officials said Tuesday.
The drill, which will simulate the response to a powerful earthquake, also appears to be aimed at easing lingering local opposition to the Osprey by focusing on the transport aircraft's usefulness in the event of a disaster, political observers say.
The exercise involving Japan's Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces is the first of its kind organized by the SDF and is based on a scenario of an earthquake centered on the Nankai Trough off central and western Japan, the officials said.
Areas likely to be affected in the event of such a quake -- including parts of Aichi, Wakayama and Kochi prefectures -- are being considered as sites for the exercise, they said. The U.S. military joined a disaster exercise together with the SDF in September last year hosted by Shizuoka Prefecture.
The envisioned disaster exercise is aimed at capitalizing on the experience of U.S. forces' Operation Tomodachi relief operations which played a key role in helping disaster victims and reconstruction efforts in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan, the observers said.
Operation Tomodachi also left a good impression of the U.S. military on the Japanese public, they said.
According to the officials, the Defense Ministry sounded out the United States last month on having a disaster drill in areas along the coast of the Pacific that are at risk of being affected by tsunami in the event of a Nankai quake.
Washington appeared keen about the idea and plans were hence floated to jointly use amphibious vehicles and Ospreys, they said.
The Japanese and U.S. governments are considering allowing operation of Ospreys for a longer period of time outside Okinawa Prefecture, including joint drills with the SDF in addition to drills conducted solely by the U.S. military, the officials said.
Through the envisioned joint exercise, the Japanese ministry hopes to "create an environment" that would enable more U.S. military drills to be held outside Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan, a senior ministry official said.
The controversial MV-22 tilt-rotor planes have been deployed to the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in a crowded residential area in Okinawa despite local protests due to their poor safety record overseas.
Local opinion against the Osprey further hardened with the Aug. 5 crash of a U.S. Air Force helicopter in Okinawa.
Following the additional deployment of Ospreys to Futenma this month, the two governments are preparing to speed up talks to transfer some drills out of Okinawa in a bid to alleviate the southwestern island prefecture's base-hosting burden.
In June, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said in a speech in Tokyo that Japan will consider utilizing the Osprey aircraft as part of bilateral cooperation in dealing with large disasters, noting that the Ospreys can be used to "transport those injured in disasters."
That same month, Japan and the United States saw MV-22 Osprey aircraft land on Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels as part of a joint drill in California.
An interim report on defense guidelines the Japanese ministry released last month included a proposal to strengthen Japan-U.S. cooperation in responding to large-scale disasters.