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US Military Remains Unaccountable Under New Aircraft Accident Guidelines

SNA (Seattle) — Two helicopter crashes in Okinawa, thirteen years apart, have led to changes in the protocol for responding to such incidents. But as with the first set of changes, this year’s revision may still allow the US military to essentially do as it pleases.

In 2004, a CH-53D helicopter based out of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma crashed onto an adjoining university. Eight months later, the United States and Japan concluded Guidelines Regarding Off-Base US Military Aircraft Accidents in Japan. In 2017, a Futenma-based CH-53E crashed on pastureland in Takae, and this July, the two governments revised those Guidelines. With Okinawa also hosting Kadena Air Base—the largest and busiest US Air Force base in East Asia—the Guidelines are especially pertinent to the prefecture. Since US administration of Okinawa ended in 1972, it has experienced over 700 US military aircraft incidents, including nearly fifty crashes.

At issue is who is allowed to access accident sites. In the 2004 crash, the United States immediately dispatched military police from Futenma, who encircled the crash site, kicking out local firefighters, police, and the mayor.

Under a strict reading of the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)—the document that specifies the terms under which the US military operates in Japan—these actions were expressly forbidden. Article XVII states that outside US bases, military police can be used only “subject to arrangements with the authorities of Japan and in liaison with those authorities, and in so far as such employment is necessary to maintain discipline and order among the members of the United States armed forces.”

None of these conditions were met. A member of the Okinawa Bar Association said, “If I were the head of the prefectural police, I would order American soldiers who obstruct inspection arrested for obstruction of official duties.”

Japan, though, confined itself to complaining about the denial of access to Japanese police, and sought—as is typical for Tokyo—changes not to SOFA itself, but to its implementation. The result was the April 2005 Guidelines, which stipulate that when US Forces Japan (USFJ) aircraft crash or have forced landings outside of bases, USFJ representatives “will be permitted to enter such property without prior authority from GOJ [Government of Japan] officials or other persons in authority.”

In addition, a jointly policed “inner cordon” around the immediate vicinity of the aircraft and a larger “outer cordon,” policed by Japan, would be established, with access into the inner cordon’s restricted area “based on the mutual consent of the US and Japanese responsible officials.” Thus, the United States held a veto over entry to anyone. In these ways, the Guidelines, far from narrowing the scope of US control over accident responses, expanded it, by granting formal authorization USFJ previously lacked.

When a CH-53E crashed on October 11, 2017, cordons were set up in accordance with the Guidelines, but six days passed before the United States allowed Japanese police into the restricted area, and then for just an hour. Then-Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera pressed for US cooperation with a vigor unusual for an Abe administration official, but was blown off when he sought an indefinite suspension of CH-53E flights; USFJ resumed them a week later, with only the sketchiest explanation of the crash’s cause. The Guidelines, it seemed, had changed little.

In this year’s revised Guidelines, however, Onodera’s efforts may have finally paid off. To be sure, stark differences remain with the protocol in countries such as Britain, where the host nation takes charge of investigating US military accidents. Still, the new Guidelines offer potential enhancements to Japan’s prerogatives, providing, for example, that “information on hazardous materials will be provided to Japanese authorities as soon as possible.” But “as soon as possible,” left undefined, will in practice be up to USFJ’s discretion.

Drawing the most attention is a provision for “expeditious early entry”—clearly an attempt to address complaints about the six-day delay in admitting Japanese officials into the restricted area in 2017. Taro Kono, foreign minister when the new Guidelines came out, promised, “It won’t take that long in the future.” But like “as soon as possible,” “expeditious” is undefined, enabling the US military to determine it case by case. Will five days turn out to be “expeditious”?

In editorials, Mainichi Shinbun and Asahi Shinbun sounded notes of caution, but much mainland coverage was positive, with headlines like “Japan’s Early Investigation of US Warplane Crash Sites to be Allowed” (Kyodo News) and “Agreement on Revised Guidelines on US Military Aircraft Accidents: Early Entrance to Site” (Yomiuri Shinbun). In most cases, you had to read the article to learn that US permission is still required.

Then-Foreign Minister Kono quickly cited the new Guidelines as the central government’s service to the southernmost prefecture: “We believe that by solving each subject like this will reduce the burden on Okinawa.” But the reaction in Okinawa was skeptical, with one observer drawing a comparison to police being barred from investigating a crime scene without the suspect’s permission.

Even if police or Defense Ministry officials are admitted, what about prefectural officials who might be less accepting of USFJ’s version of events? Language in the Guidelines, such as “in general, entry into the inner cordon/restricted area will be limited to those personnel who have responsibilities constituting a clear need to enter,” casts doubt on that. They also state that the results of environmental surveys will be shared between the United States and Japan “within the Joint Committee framework.” The Japan-United States Joint Committee Agreement on Criminal Procedures is composed of officials from USFJ and the Japanese ministries of defense and foreign affairs; Okinawa has no seat at that table, and the minutes are secret. There is no assurance, therefore, that the prefectural government will ever see survey results.

The effect, if any, of the new Guidelines will be unclear until they are tested by more accidents. But USFJ’s record of adherence to rules is less than stellar—Exhibit A being its flouting in 2004 of SOFA itself. It is not, however, just a matter of complying with rules; it’s the leeway deliberately written into them. Even the joint policing of the inner cordon applies “except in extraordinary circumstances.”

These are, after all, just “guidelines,” and based on the record of similar side agreements, expectations should be tempered. One such agreement, made in 2015, enables local authorities to perform on-base inspections following a hazardous chemical spill—provided, as with “expeditious early entry,” that the United States consents.

According to journalist Jon Mitchell, who has written extensively about environmental problems around US bases, no such inspections have been allowed on bases in Okinawa in the ensuing four years—at least not publicly. Given the public relations value such access would provide to “good neighbor” USFJ and “reducing burden on Okinawa” Japan, it seems unlikely they’d keep it under wraps.

These agreements are secretly negotiated and implemented on the one hand by a USFJ that defends nothing so fiercely as its own vested interests, and on the other by a Japanese government loath to challenge the United States on behalf of a small, remote prefecture. In the words of the late Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, Tokyo “can only ask to ‘please make sure this does not happen again.’ It is about as effective as trying to nail down tofu.” Both parties seem content with vaguely worded guidelines for which violations have no consequences.

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