How is the U.S. military’s aircraft inspection system doing?
On Jan. 8, a Futenma Air Station AH-1 attack helicopter’s warning light flashed and the helicopter made an emergency landing. On Jan. 6 as well, a UH-1 helicopter based at the same airfield made an emergency landing on the east coast of Uruma’s Ikeijima.
In addition to these incidents, troubles such as those of the same airfield’s large-scale transport helicopter CH-53’s emergency landing and blazing fire, the window dropping on an elementary school playground and the transport Osprey’s emergency landing keep occurring in succession, stirring up concern among the prefecture’s citizens.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera asked U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in a phone call to provide for thorough maintenance of the aircraft and to seek drastic measures to prevent recurrences. In response, Mattis apologized and said he hoped to deal firmly with the situation.
Every time this trouble occurs, this kind of exchange happens, but it has not led to anything that prevents such recurrences. This time, an inspection into the cause of the helicopter’s emergency landing remained unclear. So, the helicopter returned to the airfield on its own power the morning Jan. 9.
From this conduct, it appears impossible that the U.S. military is taking the gravity of the situation seriously. The U.S. should change this attitude, which is upsetting the prefecture’s citizens who have to live in fear under the aircraft’s shadow. The U.S. military should perform a thorough inspection of the deficiencies in its maintenance system. The Japanese government, which has swallowed the U.S. military’s explanations, bears an extremely heavy responsibility.
Lately, there has been an increase in U.S. Marine Corps incidents. According to a local newspaper, Congress and the Defense Department pointed out that, as far as economizing on the military budget goes, such cuts have had a serious impact on maintenance. The DOD itself recognized that the inferiority of its maintenance system was real.
The 2004 incident in which a large-scale U.S. military transport helicopter crashed at Okinawa International University was caused by a poorly serviced bolt dropping out of the aircraft. If the U.S. military does not take the prevention of a recurrence seriously, then it is no wonder that the same kind of thing keeps happening. There is also concern that the gaps in the maintenance procedures will increase due to the rising tension caused by the North Korean state of affairs.
Let me remind you of Heinrich’s Law; Behind every major accident, there are 29 minor accidents and 300 unsafe actions.* Before an accident occurs from which there is no recovery, the United States military should thoroughly identify any budding problems.
However, the root of the problem is the fact that more than 70 percent of dedicated U.S. military facilities in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, and they are able to practice and conduct exercises beyond their facilities and boundaries. As long as that distorted structure remains unchanged, there can be no quieting of the anxiety among the prefecture’s citizens. These successive accidents and trouble lead to questions about the way the U.S.-Japan alliance should be.
*Editor’s note: Heinrich’s law is a reference to Herbert William Heinrich, an American industrial safety pioneer whose work in the 1930s is considered the basis for a theory of behavior-based safety. He held that most workplace accidents are caused by unsafe acts.