Japan and the United States plan to use U.S. military MV-22 Osprey during joint drills in October, a Japanese government source said Thursday, the first such drills in Japan utilizing the tilt-rotor aircraft with a checkered safety record.
Tokyo and Washington plan to hold the drills outside Okinawa, where the stationing of Osprey has further inflamed public opposition to the massive U.S. military presence in the southwest island prefecture.
The Aibano training area of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, is a candidate site for the drills, as the Japanese and U.S. governments work to ease the U.S. base hosting burdens shouldered by Okinawa, the source said.
Japan's Defense Ministry is expected to notify the Shiga prefectural government and other local entities of the plan, which could trigger local opposition to the use of the aircraft involved in a series of accidents overseas.
The U.S. Marines will temporarily move some Ospreys from Futenma Air Station in Okinawa where the aircraft have been deployed, to Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture during the roughly two-week drills.
The Ospreys will then be used at the Aibano base for "heliborne" operations, where troops descend from the aircraft to the ground using ropes, the source said. The Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter, yet fly like an airplane, by tilting its twin rotors.
To emphasize the usefulness of the Osprey in disasters, Japan and the United States are also arranging to use them at a different joint drill in October to prepare for a massive quake projected to occur in the future along the Nankai Trough off central and western Japan.
Japan's SDF appears likely to start acquiring Ospreys of its own in the future.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which took power last December, has repeatedly expressed its determination to reduce the burden on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan.
The foreign and defense ministers of both countries are expected to gather in Tokyo in October at the so-called "two-plus-two" meeting, where staging joint drills utilizing Osprey away from Okinawa might be presented as one of the measures taken by Tokyo and Washington to relieve the base-hosting burden on Okinawa, the source said.
Joint drills between the GSDF and the Marines have been held every year in Japan since 1981.