Japan declared the V-22 Osprey vertical take-off aircraft safe, clearing the way for the U.S. to deploy them to a Marine Corps base on the southern island of Okinawa in the face of local opposition.
Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto made the announcement in Tokyo today, after months of discussion with the Obama administration about the causes of accidents involving the aircraft. The decision came two days after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with both men in Tokyo.
While the Pentagon shipped 12 of the tilt-rotor aircraft to Japan in July, sending them to Okinawa was delayed amid local protests. A deal to relocate an American base from one part of Okinawa to another over the objections of local residents has increased tensions on the island, which is home to 75 percent of the U.S. military presence in Japan.
“We have confirmed the Osprey’s operational safety and decided to allow the U.S. side to begin operations,” Morimoto told reporters in Tokyo. The deployment will probably be next month, he said.
The aircraft, which can take off and land like helicopters and fly longer distances like fixed-wing planes, are set to be moved to Okinawa this year to replace aging helicopters. The V-22 is made by Chicago-based Boeing Co. and the Bell Helicopter unit of Textron Inc. of Providence, Rhode Island.
“This agreement was the result of a deep partnership and thorough process that allowed both sides to reconfirm the safety of the aircraft,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in an e-mailed statement from Beijing, where he is traveling with Panetta. “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.”
Thousands of people rallied in Okinawa this month against the Osprey. One of the aircraft crashed in Florida, injuring five, and another one crashed in April in Morocco, killing two Marines.