By Larry Shaughnessy
All Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys deployed to Japan will stay on the ground until the Japanese government is informed about the cause of two recent crashes involving the tilt-rotor aircraft, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced Friday.
"When the government of Japan came to us and expressed safety concerns about the MV-22 deployment, we immediately responded," Panetta said in a joint news conference at the Pentagon Friday with new Japanese Minister of Defense Satoshi Morimoto.
"In recognition of the remaining concerns of the Japanese government about the safety of the aircraft, we will refrain from any flight operations of the MV-22 in Japan in the short term."
The Marine Corps deployed 12 Ospreys to a base in Japan in recent weeks. Another 12 aircraft are scheduled to deploy there next summer.
The V-22 is called a tilt-rotor because it can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane. The MV-22 is the Marine Corps version of the craft.
Panetta, who has flown in Ospreys several times, including in Afghanistan, said the aircraft will be a valuable tool for Marines and for their host country.
"The Osprey is important to the defense of Japan," he said. "It will enable Marines to fly faster and farther from Okinawa to remote islands in Japan. And with the ability to refuel in flight, it can stay aloft much longer."
Concern about the Osprey's safety record has been fueled by two recent mishaps.
Last April, an Osprey crashed during a training exercise in Morocco. Two Marines were killed and two more were injured.
And in June, an Air Force Osprey crashed at a base in Florida, injuring 5 crew members.
Morimoto said Japan wants details on the causes of those crashes before any Ospreys fly there.
He said officials there "will get a briefing from the team in United States which is involved in investigation and the United States will give us the report of the investigation with regards to what happened in Florida and Morocco as soon as possible," Morimoto said.
Morimoto got a first-hand look at the Osprey Friday when he flew in one from the Pentagon to Quantico, Virginia, after the news briefing.
Panetta said he hopes to get the information to the Japanese government within a month.
The Osprey earned the unofficial nickname "The Widowmaker" after questions were raised about its safety after number of crashes during its initial development and testing, including one in 1992 at a Marine Corps air base in Virginia that killed the crew.
In late 2000, the Marine Corps grounded the Osprey fleet after two more crashes, one in Arizona that killed four crew members and 15 passengers and another in North Carolina that killed the crew.
The aircraft was redesigned and has earned high praise among Marine Corps leaders who use it frequently in Afghanistan.