TOKYO – If it wasn’t for bad luck, the Marines’ V-22 would have no luck at all – at least not in Japan.
More than 100,000 people turned out on Okinawa on Sunday to protest the planned deployment of the Marines’ new tilt-rotor aircraft. It was among the largest anti-U.S. protests on Okinawa in decades. Critics charge that the hybrid aircraft is unsafe and will jeopardize the lives of thousands of residents of the densely populated island.
The turnout likely was swelled by news of an emergency landing of a Marine V-22 just a day earlier in North Carolina. No one was hurt in that incident – attributed to an oil leak — but it was breathlessly reported in Japan as further evidence of the danger and menace of the V-22 Osprey.
“It cannot be considered normal to live under conditions in which an Osprey may fall from the sky at any moment,” Masaharu Kina, chairman of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, told the protesters.
The Marines want to deploy 24 V-22s to Okinawa’s Futenma air base to replace aging CH-46 helicopters. The national government supports the move, in part to protect against China’s perceived encroachment on Japan’s southwestern islands.
The V-22 is a cross between a helicopter and transport plane, and can fly more than twice as fast and four times as far as a standard helicopter. In theory, Ospreys based on Okinawa could deliver combat-ready Marines (or Japanese troops, for that matter) anywhere in the Japanese archipelago within hours.
But deployment plans have been held up by previous protests over safety concerns. The first batch of 12 Ospreys has been diverted to a Marine base on Japan’s home islands and forbidden to fly until the cause of two V-22 crashes earlier this year were officially determined.
The government had hoped to resolve the issue with an elaborately staged “symposium” on V-22 safety in Tokyo in late August. A hand-picked panel of V-22 supporters testified that pilot error — and not design flaws or mechanicals defects — were responsible for the crash of a Marine V-22 in Morocco in April and Air Force V-22 in Florida in June. Two crewmen were killed in the Morocco crash but no one suffered life-threatening injuries in the Florida incident.
The Marines even flew in their most senior and experienced V-22 pilot, Col. Christopher Seymour, who commands Marine Aircraft Group 26, for the Tokyo event. The properly laconic Seymour said the Osprey was the best aircraft he’d ever flown and offered that he’d have no concerns for the safety of his wife and seven children even if V-22s flew over his house in North Carolina day and night.
It was a good show, but unfortunately, the V-22’s ill luck held. The symposium and a personal visit to Okinawa by Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, a strong V-22 supporter, had been carefully scheduled to come after a large-scale protest on Okinawa in early August. But a typhoon barreled across the island that same weekend and the protest was re-scheduled for Sunday – after the government damage-control effort and just in time for the latest safety incident.
Many of the safety questions about the V-22 date to its early development period, when some 30 pilots, crew and passengers were killed in various mishaps. The Marines say the Osprey has had one of the best safety records of any military aircraft since 2000, but protesters Sunday were unmoved.
“No matter how many times the Japanese government regurgitates the safety of the Osprey, we will never be convinced,” protester Shoko Toguchi, 67, told the Stars and Stripes newspaper. “How many lives have to be lost before stopping the aircraft operations?”
It seems unlikely the protests will prevent the V-22’s eventual deployment to Okinawa, but when that will occur is anyone’s guess. All 24 aircraft were supposed to be up and flying by now. Instead, the first 12 aircraft are sitting idle at Iwakuni Air Base, on the island of Honshu, and the rest are still parked in the States.
Okinawa-based Marines are still using the old CH-46s, many of which date back to the Vietnam War, in large-scale amphibious warfare exercises that are taking place near Guam this month. As luck would have it, some 40 Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers are taking part in the Marine exercises for the very first time. But instead of practicing amphibious raids and assaults from the fast, sleek and quiet V-22s, the U.S. and Japanese troops will be aboard old, leaky and noisy CH-46s.
With a little luck, maybe they won’t notice the difference.