Crash of MSDF Helicopters: Ascertain Why Self-Defense Forces Are Having Frequent Accidents

Serious accidents continue to occur involving the Self-Defense Forces. Is there a lack of skill? Is the organization lax? The situation needs to be thoroughly examined.

Two Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol helicopters crashed during an exercise off the Izu island chain on Saturday night. There were eight people onboard the helicopters, four on each. One crew member was found but was confirmed dead. The remaining crew are missing, and the search is ongoing.

Where the accident occurred, the water is 5,500 meters deep, and the search is facing difficulties. The Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard must do their utmost to find the missing persons.

Two flight data recorders were recovered from the site. Due to how close to each other the recorders were when found, Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said there is a “high probability the two aircraft collided.”

Another helicopter was also participating in the drill. The cause of the accident must be uncovered by interviewing the helicopter’s crew about the circumstances at the time of the accident, and by analyzing the recorders that were recovered.

In April last year, a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter crashed off Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture, killing 10 people, including a senior officer. In January last year, an MSDF destroyer ran aground in shallow water in the Seto Inland Sea and got stuck, resulting in criminal punishment for its captain and others.

In 2021, two MSDF patrol helicopters accidentally touched during a nighttime exercise, and the crews of both helicopters reportedly failed to properly ascertain the other’s movements.

After the accident, air traffic control was made to instruct helicopters to fly at different altitudes so they can avoid a collision when there is more than one of them. Other measures were also introduced to prevent accidents, such as using radar on each aircraft to check the position of other helicopters and prevent an abnormal approach.

It is necessary to check whether past lessons were being followed in the latest case.

The two crashed helicopters were on a mission to detect an MSDF submarine, which was acting the part of an enemy submarine, by lowering sonar devices from the air into the water and analyzing underwater sound waves.

In recent years, as China has heightened its maritime aggression, the Defense Ministry and the SDF have stepped up anti-submarine exercises. Just this month, Japan, the United States, Australia and the Philippines conducted a joint drill in the South China Sea. After the latest accident, the MSDF said it will suspend drills with the same model of helicopter for the time being.

To deal with the rapidly worsening security environment, it is essential for the SDF to improve its skills under strict discipline. If the SDF is repeatedly involved in accidents during peacetime missions, it will likely be difficult for it to respond quickly and appropriately in an emergency.

Thorough measures to prevent accidents must be taken to avoid shaking trust in the SDF, which could undermine cooperation with other countries.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 23, 2024)