Irony alert. The MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft – the most recent symbol of Tokyo and Washington's roughshod handling of the Okinawa base issue – could become a key part of the Japanese military's defense of the same island chain from a future Chinese invasion.
This was one of the many messages that came out of the recent landing of two US Marine Corps MV-22s on the flight deck of the JS Hyuga helicopter carrier. The landings on Hyuga, just one element of the ongoing Dawn Blitz exercises off the Californian coast, came only a year after the Okinawan prefectural government had heavily objected to the deployment of 12 MV-22s to the marines' Futenma air station in Ginowan.
In the view of the Okinawan government, Futenma is the last place that should host an aircraft with a troubled development history and controversial design. That two V-22s had already experienced "hard landings" (military speak for crashes) in 2012 did nothing to assuage the doubts of a population that remembers the August 2004 crash of a US Marine Corps CH-53D transport helicopter at Okinawa International University.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Tokyo's handling of the MV-22s' deployment to Okinawa was characteristically cack-handed – remember, this was the Democratic Party of Japan government whose first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, had to fall on his sword over broken election pledges to Okinawa over the base relocation issue.
Some tone deaf comments on the relocation issue by the Ministry of Defence's Okinawa bureau chief added to the anger on the islands and undermined the familiar bromides about "considering the feelings of the Okinawan population". Eventually, Tokyo opted for damage control, hoping that a slow, incremental introduction of the MV-22 to Okinawa after a shakedown in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, would take the heat out of the issue. In March it was announced that a second squadron would arrive in Japan in July. It too will first operate from Iwakuni before transitioning to Futenma.
Regardless of local opposition, there is almost no way that the U.S. Marine Corps was going to change its mind on the MV-22 deployment to Okinawa. As Lt. General Terry G. Robling, Commander, U. S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, recently told The Diplomat, the Osprey offers "speed, range and presence" along with a healthy boost in payload over CH-46 Sea Knight that it is replacing. These are characteristics that allow the Marine Corps to carry out the kind of expeditionary missions at land and sea that are its bread and butter – and tie in with the emerging preference for mobile and rapid reaction forces that its political masters dream about.
All of which brings us back to Dawn Blitz.
While military spokespeople will try to plead otherwise, exercises – international or otherwise – are 90% sales pitches. They can be geopolitical sale pitches, demonstrating shows of force, deterrence, and the importance of bilateral ties to a domestic or international audience, or they can be hardware sales pitches. A recent example of the former are the U.S. Air Force B-2 bombing drills that took place in South Korea earlier in 2013.