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Japanese Defense Ministry probe on US military aircraft contradicts US official's claims

A U.S. military AH-1 attack helicopter takes off from the grounds of a waste disposal site in the Okinawa Prefecture village of Yomitan on Jan. 9, 2018, the day after it made an emergency landing there. (Mainichi)

Accidents and other mishaps in 2017 involving aircraft belonging to the U.S. military stationed in Japan were more than double the number that occurred the year before, a Japanese Defense Ministry investigation has revealed, contradicting a senior U.S. military official's recent claim that the number of accidents is dropping.

There were 25 mishaps in 2017, as opposed to 11 in 2016. This year already, at least two emergency landings have been made by U.S. military helicopters. Statements by U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) chief Adm. Harry Harris that such mishaps have been on the decline do not align with the Defense Ministry's investigation results, highlighting the U.S. military's lax stance toward the issue.

In October of last year, a U.S. military CH-53E transport helicopter went up in flames after it crash-landed on privately owned land in Okinawa Prefecture. A series of emergency landings by V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft followed. This year, U.S. military helicopters made emergency landings on Jan. 6 and Jan. 8, also in Okinawa.

When Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera met with Adm. Harris in Hawaii on Jan. 9 (Jan. 10 Japan time), he told Harris that mishaps involving U.S. military aircraft had been on the rise in Japan since last year, and sought safe operations of military aircraft to ensure residents' safety and peace of mind. Harris countered that such mishaps were on a downward trend, citing at least 30 incidents in 2016, as opposed to 23 to 25 incidents in 2017, and stated that this trend was a testament to the U.S. military's efforts to put safety first.

Following Onodera's meeting with Harris, Japan's Ministry of Defense conducted an independent investigation into U.S. military aircraft accidents and mishaps. It was unable to find a basis for the statistics that had been cited by Harris, which could be attributed to the possibility that the USPACOM commander was including figures involving all of the USPACOM as well as small-scale mishaps. The ministry says that the U.S. has yet to respond to Japanese inquiries regarding the numbers.

A report released in October 2017 by the Heritage Foundation, an influential U.S. think tank, included an analysis of the accident-proneness of the U.S. Marines and other military branches -- which it attributes, at least in part, to budget cuts. The report pointed out that the Marine Corps was unable to stay on top of aircraft maintenance due to shortages of mechanics and aircraft parts, and that as of the end of 2016, "only 41 percent of the Marine Corps' fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft were considered flyable." It also reported that the continued use of aging aircraft and the chronic lack of pilot training could "raise the risk of flight accidents."

Some have voiced concerns about weakening discipline within the U.S. military. For example, in December last year, there was a case of a window from a U.S. military helicopter falling onto the playground of an elementary school in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. The cause turned out to have been a rudimentary error, in which a wire that should have kept the window in place was missing.

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