By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps' top uniformed officer said Thursday that he planned to curb MV-22 Osprey transport flights over heavily populated parts of Japan in deference to local concerns over the hybrid aircraft's safety.
U.S. plans to deploy the Osprey to the crowded southern Japanese island of Okinawa have stirred protests there, partly tied to two Osprey crashes this year, in Morocco and Florida.
General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, vowed after returning Tuesday from a regional tour that included Tokyo to work with Japan to allay concerns about the aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane.
Ospreys operate in Afghanistan and off U.S. Navy amphibious ships worldwide with what Amos described as one of the military's best safety records based on 10 years of service.
From time to time, they also have flown into New York City, San Diego and Washington, D.C.
"That said, it is my intent that Marine Osprey pilots will make every effort to minimize flying over heavily populated areas in Japan," Amos said.
The Osprey will not become operational in Japan until a full report into this year's crashes is presented to the Japanese government and the safety of flight operations is "reconfirmed," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told an August 3 joint news conference at the Pentagon with his Japanese counterpart, Satoshi Morimoto.
TWO CRASHES THIS YEAR
The Osprey crash in Morocco in April killed two Marines; the one in Florida in June injured five U.S. service members. Thirty people, including 26 Marines, were killed in test flights or training accidents from 1991 through 2000 during the aircraft's development.
The Defense Department presented the results of the Morocco mishap investigation to a Japanese assessment team that visited the Pentagon this week. The results of the Florida probe are expected to be presented by the end of this month.
The first 12 MV-22s arrived by ship on July 23 at Iwakuni, the only U.S. Marine Corps station on the main Japanese islands. The Defense Department ultimately plans to base them at Futenma, a Marine Corps Air Station in the Okinawa city of Ginowan. For now, they remain grounded.
The Osprey is key to a U.S. force realignment in the Asia-Pacific region that has become a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's foreign policy since January, Panetta has said.
The aircraft is built by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing Co. It is to replace 40-year-old CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, enabling Marines to fly faster, farther and with bigger loads from Okinawa to remote islands in Japan.
Okinawa was occupied by the United States from 1945 to 1972. It hosts 65 percent of total U.S. forces in Japan, according to a May 2012 report by the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service, a Library of Congress arm.
"As we look to the future, we are committed to forward deploying our strongest capabilities in the defense of our Japanese allies," Amos said.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)