A controversial U.S. military aircraft has been granted permission to begin flight operations at an American base in Japan after the Japanese government declared it safe to fly in the country, saying it has found no basis for thinking the transport aircraft is dangerous.
The Japanese and U.S. Governments signed an agreement on Wednesday on a set of measures to ensure the safe operation of Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, applying altitude restrictions to low-altitude flight training involving the aircraft.
The safety declaration was jointly announced by Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, while the Pentagon confirmed it.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was pleased with the agreement that permits the Osprey to begin flight operations in Japan.
Little, accompanying Panetta on his current Asia tour, said "this agreement was the result of a deep partnership and thorough process that allowed both sides to reconfirm the safety of the aircraft. It is a testament to the strength and maturity of our alliance, which remains the cornerstone for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," he added.
A senior defense official also traveling with Panetta said the deal was "the result of deep personal attention on the part of both Panetta and his Japanese counterpart Satoshi Morimoto, who have quickly developed a close relationship."
The Osprey has been controversial since it was shipped to Japan in July, but Panetta said during his visit to Tokyo on Monday that the two countries have established a joint committee to resolve any questions about the aircraft's safety.
The Ospreys were sent to replace CH-46 helicopters used by the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa and Defense officials say it can operate at twice the speed, three times the payload, and four times the range as the helicopters.
"The Osprey will provide a critical capability that strengthens the United States' ability to defend Japan, perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, and fulfill other Alliance roles," according to Little.
Deployment of the Osprey MV-22 at the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa prefecture has provoked strong opposition from residents, who say the aircraft is accident-prone.
A dozen Ospreys are currently being held in Iwakuni city in Yamaguchi prefecture ahead of their deployment in Okinawa.
The Japanese Defense Minster had told Iwakuni mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda last week that operations of the controversial transport aircraft at Futenma may not begin early next month as originally scheduled, in the context of increasing public concern over its safety.
Massive protest rallies were held in Okinawa as well as outside the Japanese Parliament building in Tokyo early this month urging the Pentagon and the Japanese government to drop the plan to permanently deploy Ospreys in a crowded island like Okinawa.
Japanese people's concern over the safety of the Bell Boeing-made Osprey arises out of recent crashes involving the aircraft, one resulting in the death of two U.S. airmen in the West African country of Morocco in April. Another variant of the aircraft crashed in June in the U.S. state of Florida, injuring five crew members, although U.S. officials said the accident was not due to mechanical problems. Concerns heightened further when an MV-22 made an emergency landing in a residential area outside a Marine base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, this month.
by RTT Staff Writer
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