27.05.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Can an Osprey Jeopardize US-Japan Relations?

4311111An Osprey is a unique-fish eating bird of prey. This very name is given to the convertiplane V-22, built by Boeing and Bell Helicopter, successfully reflects the uniqueness of this particular machine, which combines the attributes of both a helicopter and an aeroplane.

Of the numerous projects for such devices, developed from the end of the 30s of the last century, the “Osprey” is so far the only one brought to the stage of mass production and practical use in the armed forces of the United States.

According to its basic characteristics (payload, speed of horizontal flight, range), it has at times exceeded US transport helicopters and in the opinion of operators, is ideal for landing operations by the Air Force Special Forces, as well as advanced U.S. Marine Corps units (ILC).

The process of taking off, the transition onto horizontal flight regime and landing “Osprey” is impressive.
It is equipped with two huge engine rotors at the ends of the wings with the convertiplane in vertical position and the machine takes off like a conventional helicopter.

At a certain altitude the pilot flicks (not even by hand, but with his finger), spins a wheel on the remote control, the motors rotate in a horizontal position and the machine turns (“converts”) into almost normal airplane.
The landing procedure takes place on a small area (in the mountains, jungle, taiga, on a seaside beach) then the reverse transformation back to the “Osprey”.

But the current ease of “converting” the “Osprey” is due to the solving of complex technological challenges constantly faced by engineers in the nearly 30-year period, the development unit, costing the Pentagon an unprecedented (estimated) amount of 40-60 billion dollars.
Buying each machine costs the US military about $115 million.

The program has more than once been on the verge of closing down due to its high cost and numerous eventually fatal accidents. Such accidents plagued the entire test period of the Osprey, and fighting operation units in the army began in the second half of the last decade.

It should be noted, however, that in Afghanistan, they have proved themselves to be effective. Therefore, both the customers (the Air Force and the USMC), despite everything, firmly support the continuation of the program of operational development and serial production of the “Osprey.” Naturally, there is no guarantee of 100 percent reliability for the operation of very complex flying machines.

This was confirmed by the latest accident, which occurred on May 17 in Hawaii.
Something apparently went wrong with the “flick” in the course of landing. The result: of the 22 people on board the “Osprey”, one died and 12 were injured.

This occurrence had serious international consequences, since it has touched on sensitive nerves in the U.S.-Japanese relations, key allies in the Asia-Pacific region, in which not all is going very well.

One of the major sources of conflict in bilateral relations is the issue of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station “Futenma” located in the middle of the densely populated city of Ginowan in Okinawa.  This base performs the transporting of PPC parts, equipped with 24 “Ospreys”.

The problem of relocating the “Futenma” causes a headache not only in Washington but also in Tokyo, now at the top of the agenda of President Barack Obama as he talked with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during the latter’s visit to the United States, which took place in late April-early May this year.

One of the main points of the final document was confirmed by the joint plan of 2006 on the relocation of the base in the less populated area of ​​Okinawa.

But the fact is that the vast majority of Okinawans, as a rule, protest against leaving “Futemmy” on the island.
In the wake of such sentiments, Takeshi Onaga won a landslide victory in the governer’s election in November last year – a firm supporter of removing the base from the island, and, in fact, all other US military bases as well.

During the overture talks on this subject with the new governor, that Abe held a week before leaving for the United States, T. Onaga implicitly sent both respected leaders of the allied countries messages to the tune of “we allow you to get out” of Okinawa, taking a “Futenma” along with all its “Osprey”.

No positive progress was seen as a result of the visit of Prime Minister to the United States in the position of the central government on an issue that has been very painful for Okinawans, who have for more than a decade held mass marches and demonstrations with the participation of other Japanese prefectures.

Immediately after the accident in Hawaii, concerns regarding the planned deployment of ten Ospreys at the “Yokota” airbase, located on the edge of one of the districts of “Greater Tokyo,” were already expressed by representatives of the capital of the prefecture .

In addition, the Japanese government itself has planned to purchase the same Ospreys from the Americans for its own landing operations in the remote islands, under which all clearly understand the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are the subject of complaint from the part of China.

Opponents of not only this deal but of the entire course of action taken by the Japanese government of carrying out international armed military operations are doubtless taking advantage of the Hawaian catastrophe.

In late May, Governor T. Onaga has a week-long visit to the US planned , in order to explain their point of view among various strata of American society and the political elite and the most recent Osprey accident will strongly strengthen his arguments.

However this move from the governor of Okinawamove raises questions. What is he planning to say to U.S. leaders? That “the comrade (i.e. the Prime Minister of his own country) does not understand”?

He understands perfectly. And first of all that the situation around Japan looks far very difficult. Japan, as it seem, can not make do without the support of its trusty ally, the U.S., for long.

In these circumstances, any voluntary or involuntary action of the central government, impeding the payment of the U.S. debt in regard to Japan itself, would appear strange to say the least in the eyes of Washington.

Thus, you can be sure, that yet another catastrophe with a fire will just be one of the many aircrafts that unexpectedly highlight some features of the tightly knit drama. Its main characters are the chief internal political powers of Japan, as well as key partners with Tokyo in the regional “Big Game.”

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.