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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Defense chief may visit U.S. to discuss MV-22 plan


Staff writer

Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto may travel to the U.S. as early as late July to meet with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to discuss the scheduled deployment of Osprey transport aircraft in Okinawa, ministry sources said.

On his first visit to the U.S. since taking office last month, the defense pundit-turned-minister is likely to talk about the long-stalled relocation of the Futenma airbase from a densely populated residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated Nago area, both on Okinawa Island.

Some news reports said Morimoto's visit could take place July 27 to 29 or Aug. 3 to 5.

The sources at the Defense Ministry said they are proposing several possible dates, but the schedule could be affected by the Diet session, in which lawmakers will be voting on a bill on debt-covering bonds, and the fracture in the Democratic Party of Japan caused by the departure of Ichiro Ozawa and his followers.

Morimoto has also expressed interest to take a flight in an MV-22 Osprey, but it's unclear if that would be possible during his trip.

The plan to station the helicopter-airplane hybrid at Futenma is strongly opposed in Okinawa. The U.S. wants the Osprey to replace its aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, which are to retire in 2014.

Following the U.S. notification to deliver the tilt-rotor aircraft last Friday, a freighter carrying 12 Ospreys left the U.S. naval base in San Diego on Sunday and is scheduled to arrive in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, later this month, the Defense Ministry said.

The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and fly like an airplane, suffered two accidents, in Morocco and Florida, within the last three months. The U.S. is investigating the cause of the accidents but has insisted there were no mechanical problems, while some media accounts have claimed the Osprey's ability to make an emergency landing in helicopter mode may be insufficient.

The increasing opposition against the deployment prompted the U.S. to refrain from flying the Osprey in Japan until the final reports on the two accidents are compiled and its safety is confirmed.

Japan will be only place in the world where the U.S. will be suspending MV-22 operations before the safety confirmation, but the U.S. says the deployment in Okinawa will take place in October as scheduled.

While giving credit to the concession by the U.S., Morimoto on Tuesday said Japan will not blindly accept the reports, and a special team within the ministry will verify the findings. Yet it is unclear to what extent Japan can affirm the plane's safety when the Self-Defense Forces don't use the Osprey.



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