BEIJING (AP) — The United States and Japan have reached an agreement allowing the MV-22 Osprey military aircraft to begin flight operations in Japan, officials said Wednesday. The deal had been in question because of protests by Japanese citizens who feared the hybrid aircraft was not safe.
The Pentagon said in a statement that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was pleased with the agreement, which calls for the deployment of 12 of the aircraft to the southwestern island of Okinawa. Japan's defense minister, Satoshi Morimoto, said Tokyo was satisfied the aircraft — which takes off and lands like a helicopter but can fly like a plane — was safe, but Okinawa's Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said he remained concerned and called the government's handling of the matter "insincere."
The Pentagon called the agreement the result of "a deep partnership" and a thorough process that has reconfirmed the safety of the aircraft, which U.S. officials say will help strengthen their ability to defend Japan and provide humanitarian assistance.
Japanese media reports said test flights could begin this week at the base in southern Japan where the Ospreys are temporarily stationed before they fly to Okinawa.
The plan has created an outpouring of anger on Okinawa after crashes in Morocco and Florida earlier this year. A recent incident in North Carolina that officials called a "precautionary landing" further aggravated the sentiment.
The tilt-rotor planes have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States says they have a solid record and can fly faster and carry bigger loads than the CH-46, which it is replacing worldwide.
But Okinawa officials say crowding on their islands means a crash could cause significant civilian casualties or damage. The deployment plan has also reignited longstanding anger over the heavy presence of American troops on Okinawa, where more than half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed throughout Japan are based.
Okinawans are also angry because the Ospreys will be deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which the two countries decided to close more than a decade ago. The base has remained in operation because a replacement site hasn't been readied.
Tens of thousands of Okinawans rallied against the plan in a peaceful protest earlier this month.
Associated Press writer Eric Talmadge contributed to this report from Tokyo.