The head of the U.S. forces in Okinawa said Wednesday that AV-8 Harrier fighter jets will resume flight operations shortly, as the safety of the aircraft has been confirmed following a crash off the southern island prefecture on Sept. 22.
“It has been determined that all squadron aircraft have been found to be safe to continue flight operations this Friday,” Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson said at a press conference at Camp Foster in the prefecture.
In Tokyo, visiting U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada that thorough safety checks have been conducted. But the local government quickly objected to the resumption, as the cause of the Sept. 22 crash has yet to be determined.
Nicholson said at a press conference the cause is “currently under investigation,” noting preliminary reports “do not identify the cause as systemic in the aircraft, aircrew or maintenance.”
The AV-8 Harrier, after taking off from the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, crashed about 150 kilometers east of Cape Hedo at the northern end of Okinawa’s main island on Sept. 22. The aircraft’s pilot ejected safely and suffered only minor injuries.
All Harrier aircraft on Okinawa were grounded following the incident, with the aircraft thoroughly inspected ahead of the announced resumption, Nicholson said.
“The safety of our community is a priority, and we will continue to conduct preflight inspections, pilot inspections, and post-flight inspections every time we fly,” he said.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, however, told reporters later Wednesday that “I strongly protest (the announced resumption of flights).”
The U.S. military “unilaterally” decided to resume the Harrier flight operations “without any notification to the prefecture,” Onaga said. He also complained there has been no explanation as to what caused last month’s crash and that explanations regarding the safety of the aircraft have not been sufficient.
The crash on Sept. 22 was the latest in a series of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
The incident was discussed when Inada met with Harris for the first time since she assumed her ministerial post in early August, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry official.
The official said the two also agreed to work closely together on efforts to reduce the burden that Okinawa bears in hosting U.S. bases, including seeking progress over the planned relocation of U.S. Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.
The plan has met intense opposition from Onaga and many locals, who want the base to be moved outside the prefecture.
Inada and Harris also reaffirmed Japan-U.S. cooperation in dealing with the security situation surrounding Japan, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and maritime issues in the East China Sea, the official said.
At the outset of their meeting, Inada hailed the Japan-U.S. security alliance as “becoming stronger,” while Harris responded that the bilateral relationship is “fundamental to the peace and prosperity in Asia.”