EDITORIAL: US F-16 fuel tank drop again shows need for SOFA overhaul

A US F-16 fighter jet dropped two fuel tanks during an emergency in Aomori prefecture on November 30.

The incident could have caused a terrible disaster, although no local residents were injured or no private homes were damaged.

The U.S. military should be alarmed by the anxiety and concern the incident has aroused in local communities and make thorough efforts to identify the cause and prevent it from happening again.

The Japanese government bears the heavy responsibility of putting pressure on US forces to take these measures.

The F-16, stationed at Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, dropped the tanks to lighten the plane and make an emergency landing at Aomori Airport after the pilot had encountered engine problems.

A tank was found near the government office in Fukaura town, which was near a residential area. Parts were strewn about and the road was covered with fuel leaks. The other tank was discovered in the mountains of the city.

The US military initially said the tanks were dropped on an uninhabited area. We need to hear a detailed explanation from US forces on how the safety of the action was confirmed.

In a meeting with Colonel Timothy Murphy, vice-commander of the 35th Fighter Wing based in Misawa, and other American officers who came to apologize, Aomori Governor Shingo Mimura expressed his deep regret. and said the incident caused “serious anxiety” to residents of the prefecture.

Mimura pointed out that the tanks contained flammable material and were heavy objects.

The US military resumed flight training for the F-16s on December 2. Local residents will remain concerned unless they hear a convincing explanation from US forces on how the security of operations is ensured.

Another worrying fact is that there was a significant delay in reporting the incident to local authorities, as is often the case with similar events.

Almost four hours passed before the incident was reported to the Fukaura Town Office and the Aomori Prefecture government through the Defense Ministry.

Last month, a canteen fell from an Osprey transport plane based at the United States Marine Corps Air Force Base in Futenma, Okinawa Prefecture, over a densely populated residential area.

Although the U.S. military learned of the incident immediately after it occurred, it did not report it to Japanese authorities until the Defense Department investigated.

An agreement between Japan and the United States requires the United States military to promptly report all crimes and accidents involving American forces in Japan to the central government and relevant local authorities. This agreement must not become a dead letter.

The Aomori incident is reminiscent of a similar incident involving a Misawa-based F-16 that occurred three years ago.

When an aircraft engine caught fire shortly after take-off, the pilot dropped two fuel tanks in Lake Ogawarako in Aomori Prefecture and returned safely to the base.

The incident could also have caused a disaster as there were fishing boats harvesting freshwater “shijimi” clams in the lake.

Aomori is not the only prefecture to have suffered accidents involving US military planes.

In Okinawa Prefecture, home to a constellation of US military bases, such incidents and accidents have been reported almost every year, including accidental drops of aircraft parts, crashes and emergency landings.

Each time, the US military promises to determine the cause and to make considerable efforts to prevent a recurrence. But there has been no noticeable improvement in the situation.

Dangerous low-level flight training, which bothers local residents, has also been spotted across the country.

The National Governors’ Association has demanded that the U.S. military provide advance flight training information, such as flight schedules and routes. But the request was ignored.

Behind all of these problems lies the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement, which grants US forces stationed in Japan various privileges.

The Kishida administration must offer Washington a fundamental review of the deal if it understands the government’s duty to protect people’s lives and property.

–L’Asahi Shimbun, December 3

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