December 3, 2021 at 13:54 JST
Parts from what is believed to be a fuel tank ditched by a U.S. F-16 fighter jet lie in Fukaura, Aomori Prefecture, on Dec. 1. (Ayaka Kibi)
A U.S. F-16 fighter jet jettisoned two fuel tanks during an emergency in Aomori Prefecture on Nov. 30.
The mishap could have caused a terrible disaster, although no local resident was injured or no private residence was damaged.
The U.S. military should be alarmed by the anxiety and concern the incident has stirred in local communities and make thorough efforts to identify the cause and prevent a recurrence.
The Japanese government bears a heavy responsibility to pressure the U.S. forces to take those steps.
The F-16, stationed at Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, jettisoned the tanks to lighten the aircraft to make an emergency landing at Aomori Airport after the pilot experienced engine trouble.
One tank was found near the Fukaura town government office, which was close to a residential area. Parts lay scattered and the road was covered with leaked fuel. The other tank was discovered in the mountains in the town.
The U.S. military initially said the tanks were dropped over an uninhabited area. We need to hear a detailed explanation from the U.S. forces about how the safety of the action was confirmed.
In a meeting with Col. Timothy Murphy, vice commander of the 35th Fighter Wing based at Misawa, and other U.S. officers, who came to apologize, Aomori Governor Shingo Mimura expressed deep regret and said the incident had caused prefectural residents “grave anxiety.”
Mimura pointed out that the tanks contained a flammable material and were heavy objects.
The U.S. military resumed F-16 flight training on Dec. 2. Local residents will remain uneasy unless they hear a convincing explanation from the U.S. forces about how the safety of operations is secured.
Another disturbing fact is that there was a significant delay in the reporting of the incident to local authorities as is often the case with similar occurrences.
Nearly four hours lapsed before the incident was reported to the Fukaura town office and the Aomori prefectural government via the Defense Ministry.
Last month, a canteen fell out of an Osprey transport aircraft based at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture over a densely populated residential area.
Even though the U.S. military learned of the incident immediately after it occurred, it did not report it to Japanese authorities until the Defense Ministry made an inquiry.
An agreement between Japan and the United States obligates the U.S. military to quickly report any crime and accident involving the U.S. forces in Japan to both the central government and the local authorities involved. This agreement must not be allowed to become a dead letter.
The incident in Aomori recalls a similar mishap involving an F-16 based at Misawa that occurred three years ago.
When an engine of the aircraft caught fire soon after take-off, the pilot jettisoned two fuel tanks into Lake Ogawarako in Aomori Prefecture and returned safely to the base.
The incident could also have caused a disaster given that there were fishing boats harvesting “shijimi” freshwater clams in the lake.
Aomori is not the only prefecture that has suffered mishaps involving U.S. military aircraft.
In Okinawa Prefecture, home to a constellation of U.S. military bases, such incidents and accidents have been reported almost annually, including the accidental drops of aircraft parts, crashes and emergency landings.
Each time, the U.S. military promises to determine the cause and make thorough efforts to prevent a recurrence. But there has been no notable improvement in the situation.
Dangerous low-altitude flight training, which disturbs local residents, has also been spotted across the nation.
The National Governors’ Association has been demanding that the U.S. military provide advance information about flight training, such as schedules and flight routes. But the demand has been ignored.
Behind all these problems is the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which gives the U.S. forces stationed in Japan various privileges.
The Kishida administration needs to propose to Washington a fundamental revision to the agreement if it understands the government’s duty to protect the lives and properties of the people.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 3
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