Pentagon agrees to ground V-22 aircraft in Japan until crash probes completed

A tranche of American hybrid airplane-helicopters won’t be buzzing over the skies of Japan anytime soon.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto announced on Friday that U.S-led operations of the V-22 Osprey aircraft would be suspended in the country until Tokyo is satisfied the aircraft are safe to fly.

"Until that we confirm the safety of it, the United States will refrain from flying Osprey" in Japan, Morimoto said during a joint briefing at the Pentagon. 

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The Ospreys destined for the Pacific will replace the older CH-46 helicopters flown by Marine Corps units attached to Marine Expeditionary Force III stationed in the region, according to a Pentagon statement. 

The first group of V-22s will arrive at the service's air station in Iwakuni in late July, according to the Pentagon. The aircraft, built by Bell-Boeing, is designed to take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a fixed-wing plane.

But the planes will remain dormant on U.S. airfields at Iwakuni until DOD completes its investigations on recent incidents with the Osprey in North Africa and Florida. 

In April, two Marines were killed and two others wounded when an Osprey crashed during a joint U.S. training mission with the Moroccan military. 

The Marine Corps tiltrotor went down in the southern province of Tan Tan in Morocco's Guelmim Province, 450 miles south of Rabat, according to reports at the time. 

Two months later, an Air Force Osprey crashed during another training mission in Hurlburt Field, Fla., which is home to Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters. Five airmen from the 1st Special Operations Wing were injured during that crash. 

In both instances, Marine Corps and Air Force leaders decided not to suspend Osprey operations while military officials conducted investigations into the incidents. 

Panetta and Morimoto discussed the progress of those ongoing investigations during their meeting Friday in Washington. 

Further discussions are planned for upcoming "joint committee" talks between Washington and Tokyo on the future of the Osprey and other military cooperation issues, the Japanese defense chief said. 

"In order to solve these programs, we are actively cooperate and give utmost consideration to ensure the safety of the local population" in Iwakuni and Okinawa, Morimoto said. 

Despite the DOD inquiries into recent Osprey mishaps, Panetta was adamant the aircraft will play a vital role in maintaining regional security in the Pacific and bolstering military ties with Japan. 

"The Osprey is important to the defense of Japan," Panetta said, adding that the Pentagon's reviews of the Morocco and Florida incidents should be wrapped up by the end of August.

"This is a one-of-a-kind platform [that] provides the speed, the range, the payload needed to cover the vast distances in the western Pacific, and it will enable us to perform humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations, and fulfill our other roles that are critical" to the U.S. alliance with Japan, Panetta said.

The recent hiccups with the Osprey deployment to Japan have been somewhat of a black mark on a relatively solid military relationship between the two allies. 

That alliance has become even more important as the Pentagon has shifted its strategic focus increasingly toward the Asia-Pacific region. 

U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa, Japan, are already scheduled to redeploy to bases in Guam and a new outpost in Australia as part of the Pentagon's new Pacific strategy.

That Australian base, located in Darwin, is expected to house 2,500 Marines once fully staffed. 

On Wednesday, Defense Department officials told Congress that they are considering plans to increase the number of attack submarines and long-range bombers in the Pacific as part of the department's overarching strategic shift to the region. 

The details regarding specific numbers of ships, subs and planes, along with where they would be based in the region, are still being reviewed by senior DOD officials, Robert Scher, deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, told members of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee. 

DOD is "taking another look" at basing these additional military assets at the U.S. outpost in Guam, which is already home to Andersen Air Force Base, Naval Base Guam and Naval Forces Marianas, Scher said. 

But the massive movements of U.S. weapons and personnel into the Pacific region is based on the support coming from Japan.

Friday's face-to-face meetings between the two defense leaders were key to establishing a "relationship based on trust," Morimoto said. Both leaders "were able to discuss about a lot of important issues, which this very important to set the direction for the future relationship," he added. 

Echoing that statement, Panetta reiterated the ongoing spat over the Osprey deployment would not interfere with those long-standing relationships between the Pentagon and partner nations in the Pacific. 

"As close allies, we will always respect … the concerns and the circumstances on both sides and work together to develop practical solutions that will allow this vital relationship to continue to move forward in the face of challenges," Panetta said.

"Our hope is to work out a joint way forward . . . in a manner that is befitting this great alliance.”