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Gov't OKs restart of Osprey flights in Okinawa citing reduced base burden

The government has given the green light to the resumption of flights by U.S. Marine Corps Osprey aircraft in Okinawa Prefecture, believing that the decision will win the understanding of Okinawa residents if measures are taken to lessen the burden of U.S. bases in the prefecture.

The Supreme Court sided with the central government in a ruling on Dec. 20 on a lawsuit over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.

However, the high-handed manner in which the prime minister's office approved the resumption of Osprey MV-22 flights has raised concerns within the Defense Ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and could add fuel to protests from local residents.

"The Defense Ministry received an explanation from the United States this morning. I understand that the resumption of flights followed this," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Dec. 19.

Since an Osprey crash-landed just off Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 13, the government has taken the position that the opinion of prefectural residents opposing Ospreys is not directly related to the issue of relocating the Futenma base to Nago.

On Dec. 20, the top court upheld a lower court ruling, which determined that Gov. Takeshi Onaga's revocation of his predecessor's permission for the national government's reclamation work off Nago as part of the Futenma base relocation is illegal and invalid.

Suga, who is playing a leading role in the relocation, is poised to go ahead with the project as scheduled.

The government's green light to the resumption of Osprey flights is also related to a ceremony on Dec. 22 to mark the return of part of the U.S. military's Northern Training Area in the prefecture to Japan.

The government is building helipads for U.S. forces in exchange for the return of part of the training area. The helipads will be used also for the training of Osprey pilots. Therefore, the government believes that if the burden of U.S. forces on residents around the Futenma base is reduced, it will ease local residents' opposition to the government's approval of the resumption of Osprey flights.

Washington sounded out Tokyo on Dec. 15 -- while Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Japan -- about a plan to allow one Osprey to fly in Okinawa on Dec. 16 before fully lifting the ban on flights on Dec. 19. But Tokyo rejected the offer.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada initially raised questions as to whether the safety of Osprey flights could be ensured. However, Suga decided to accept the U.S. proposal.

Osprey flights were resumed only six days after the latest accident, strikingly early compared with other U.S. military plane accidents in Okinawa Prefecture in recent years. It took U.S. forces nine days before resuming flights following the crash of a large helicopter CH-53D onto the premises of Okinawa International University in Ginowan in August 2004 and 15 days following the crash of an AV-8 Harrier into the sea off Okinawa's main island in September this year.

U.S. forces attach particular importance to the Marine Corps in Okinawa, which is supposed to be deployed forward in case of a military conflict. Such being the case, if Ospreys were to be grounded over a long period, it would adversely affect the training of Marines. This is apparently why U.S. forces were anxious to resume Osprey flights.

However, since the prime minister's office took the initiative in approving the resumption of flights, the Defense Ministry was late in responding to the matter. For example, the ministry had not provided an explanation to local governments until the morning of Dec. 19, the day when Osprey flights were fully resumed.

The Okinawa Prefecture villages of Kunigami and Higashi, which host the Northern Training Area, have been demanding that the facility's land be returned at an early date and have been opposed to the deployment of Ospreys to the substitute helipads. Since the Dec. 13 Osprey crash-landing, Kunigami Mayor Hisakazu Miyagi has not clarified whether he will attend the Dec. 22 ceremony marking the partial return of the Northern Training Area.

The central government's forceful attitude on the issue could further deepen the split between the national and Okinawa prefectural governments. Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said, "The resumption of flights even without clarifying the cause of the accident is too hasty and premature."

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