A cockpit window fell from a United States Marine CH-53 helicopter shortly after taking off from Futenma Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa last week. The window landed in a schoolyard. Thankfully, it did not hit any children.
Such incidents are unfortunate, but happen inevitably in the course of aviation operations, both civilian and military. On Okinawa, a hotbed of cultural clashes between US servicemen and local civilians, this kind of reality is often overlooked.
Although the latest accident was attributed to a maintenance error, there have been other Marine helicopter incidents there caused by mechanical problems. Perhaps related, there have been reports in recent years that the US Marine air arm does not have enough money or time to conduct thorough aircraft maintenance.
It has also been alleged that pilots do not get adequate flight time to ensure proficiency.
The Marines have been at war overseas since 2001 and face tight budgets despite the US military spending an astronomical US$600 billion on defense. Culturally, they are not inclined to say “no,” so in order to meet mission requirements they keep flying, and are hard pressed to take aircraft out of service when complex maintenance is required.
Imagine driving your car constantly while making sure it has enough oil, brake fluid, gasoline and correct tire pressure, but you are too busy to take the car in for regular overhauls. The car will run, but it will wear out sooner rather than later. Eventually, it starts having more problems, more often. It becomes dangerous.
If Marine Corps aviation is in this state, someone needs to take responsibility. Perhaps, we are seeing evidence of the truism that there are things for which lieutenants are held accountable but generals are not.
Still, let us look beyond this one incident. Why is Futenma Air Station still operating? The Japanese government promised almost 20 years ago to build a replacement in a less crowded part of the Japanese island.
It has repeated this promise constantly over the years. One suspects US officials had to resist asking: “Were you lying then, or are you lying now?”
And the US side’s handling of the Okinawa situation has been incoherent at times. Among other things, they could have demanded Japan keeps its word. After all, Americans are prepared to die for them, while only asking in return that Japan keeps its promises.
Also, the Americans have settled for what is just a long heliport, while there were other options that were better and could have been built faster. Admittedly, it was not always easy for American officials as Japanese negotiators are often as stubborn as the North Koreans.
Moving on, one wonders why a school is so close to an airfield? Old photos show that Futenma Air Base was built in the middle of nowhere. Surely, the Japanese government should have banned civilians from constructing buildings so close to Futenma?
After all, if you build houses and schools near an airfield anywhere in the world there will be problems. That is the government’s fault, although the people who actually built near an air force base are also to blame.
Lawyers call this “contributory negligence.” In plain language, this means that the person who gets hurt shares some of the blame. But this is seldom noted in a narrative where “Okinawans are the victims”.
Following the accident, a Marine colonel visited the school and apologized. This is better than nothing, but what happens “between accidents” matters more. And the Marines are not building a cushion of support on Okinawa, so every accident or incident is treated like a national calamity.
Predictably, Japanese authorities are now pressuring the Marines to suspend flights over schools and other public facilities. Itsunori Onodera, the Tokyo’s Defense Minster, complained he has not received sufficient explanation of what the Americans will do to ensure no future accidents occur.
This is the typical Japanese response after every aviation or other mishap on Okinawa. It suggests that the Americans are careless, and do not give two hoots about anyone’s safety. This is not true. It is also ironic as Japan’s own Self Defense Force has not exactly got a spotless aviation safety record.
Recently, an Air Self Defense Force F4 Phantom caught fire and was destroyed on the runway at Hyakuri Airbase. The crew were lucky to escape. In August, a Japanese Navy helicopter crashed at Iwakuni Air Base. And another crashed around Aomori with three fatalities.
As long as aircraft fly there will be accidents – no matter how careful crews are. These are all unfortunate and the loss of life is tragic. But grandstanding by officials and politicians is unhelpful – and sometimes offensive.
Instead, related parties should remember that American, and Japanese, military aircraft are engaged in inherently risky, but necessary, activities to defend Japan from real enemies.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.