Photo/IllutrationA rotor blade of the Self-Defense Forces helicopter is found about 500 meters away from the crash site in Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture. (The Asahi Shimbun)

The fatal crash of a Ground Self-Defense Force attack helicopter in Saga Prefecture may indicate structural problems that need to be identified through an exhaustive investigation along with the direct cause of the accident.

The AH-64D helicopter crashed on Feb. 5 in a residential area of Kanzaki in the western Japanese prefecture, killing its two crew members. The crash ignited fires in two houses, injuring an 11-year-old girl living in one of them.

The accident site, surrounded by fields and paddies, is some 5 kilometers southwest of the GSDF's Metabaru Base in Yoshinogari, which the aircraft belongs to.

With an elementary school standing nearby, the news has created deep anxiety among local residents.

The focus of the investigation should be on the maintenance work carried out on the aircraft immediately prior to the accident.

The ill-fated helicopter was on a test flight following regular maintenance work that is done after every 50 flight hours, according to the Defense Ministry.

The helicopter's main rotor head was replaced along with the maintenance work. The vital component, which turns the rotor blades based on engine output, is required to be replaced after every 1,750 flight hours.

The principal question is why the aircraft crashed immediately after it was serviced. Was there any problem with the component itself or with the procedures for maintenance and component replacement?

Did the mechanics involved have sufficient skill and knowledge to deal with the complicated tasks required for maintenance of today’s high-tech aircraft?

These questions need to be answered in satisfactory detail through the investigation into the accident and the analysis of the immediate and underlying causes.

It is also vital to scrutinize the background factors behind what occurred.

It is disturbing to know that it was the fourth fatal crash involving SDF aircraft in the current fiscal year. There is no ruling out the possibility that there are deep-rooted structural problems behind this spate of accidents.

To uncover the truth, authorities need to start by taking a fresh, hard look at what is transpiring on the front line of SDF operations.

In recent years, the scope of the tasks SDF personnel are required to carry out has been widened sharply, increasing the workload on individual members.

The SDF needs to know how this is affecting their daily activity.

Another potential factor contributing to the dire situation is the administration's policy to increase spending on state-of-the-art U.S. weapons.

Some experts point out that the massive outlays to buy costly U.S. weaponry financed from a limited defense budget are forcing cuts in spending on maintenance and repair of equipment.

It is also said that increased workload and budget cuts are behind the recent rash of accidents and mishaps involving U.S. military aircraft in Okinawa. The burden of tasks imposed on U.S. servicemembers has risen markedly due to increased responses to North Korea’s weapons programs while U.S. defense spending has been pruned substantially.

The SDF may be facing similar structural problems.

The GSDF plans to station special troops in its Ainoura Base in Nagasaki Prefecture in spring to defend remote islands.

The Defense Ministry has decided to deploy Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Saga Airport to transport the troops. But the ministry’s efforts to win support from local communities have hit a brick wall.

The SDF’s activities cannot be sustained without the support and trust of local communities.

The Defense Ministry has a duty to develop an effective plan to prevent the recurrence of accidents and announce it in a way that reassures the public.

To do so, the ministry needs to identify challenges facing the SDF's front-line operations and determine problems that may be plaguing the organization.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 7