A probe conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa has shown that violations of rules were rampant in a fighter unit stationed at the Marines' Iwakuni base in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi.
The in-house investigation found a pilot flew a fighter while taking their hands off the control stick and without wearing an oxygen mask, and another took selfies of themselves reading a book during a flight. Moreover, a pilot took medicine that could induce sleep during a drill. If a pilot takes their hands off the control stick, they could be slow to respond to an emergency situation. If a pilot is ejected without an oxygen mask, they could lose their life. Moreover, a pilot who took medicine that could induce sleep could lose control of the plane.
All these actions could lead to serious incidents. What is surprising is that the head of the unit, who is supposed to discipline the team, took photos during a mission and shared them with others through a communications app. The lack of professionalism among unit members is outrageous.
The series of problematic practices was exposed through an investigation into an accident in which a fighter belonging to the unit and a refueling plane belonging to another unit crashed after colliding midair off the western Japan prefecture of Kochi in December last year during a nighttime drill, claiming the lives of six crewmembers.
The cause of the accident is believed to be fighter pilot error. However, traces of sleep-inducing drugs were found in two of the crewmembers. Neither of them had gained approval from the corps to use such drugs.
A similar accident occurred in 2016, but it was not reported to the top officers of the Marine Corps in Japan. In the accident, nobody was injured although a refueling hose was damaged. Therefore, the force did not conduct a detailed probe into that case, deeming it a minor accident.
In a reinvestigation, the 2016 accident was attributed to pilot error in inputting flight control data. At the same time, however, various problems including flawed mission plans and risk mismanagement were pointed out.
If a detailed investigation had been held immediately after the 2016 accident and appropriate corrective measures had been taken, the December 2018 accident might have been avoided.
What is more worrisome is that the 2016 accident was never reported to the Japanese government. At the time, the fighter involved in the accident was reportedly on a mission near Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture.
Japan provides land for U.S. bases and the United States defends Japan under the bilateral security treaty. Therefore, accidents involving U.S. forces in Japan are relevant to Japan's security.
U.S. forces say they will report accidents to the Japanese government in accordance with bilateral agreements. However, the United States should take it seriously that its underestimation of the 2016 accident also damaged Japan's trust in U.S. forces.
Tokyo and Washington should work out more transparent rules on U.S. forces reporting accidents to Japan.