Chopper crash exposes cracks in Japanese military might

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 February, 2018, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 February, 2018, 9:00pm

As Japanese air crash investigators search for parts from a Ground Self-Defence Force helicopter that crashed on Monday, killing the two-man crew, there are growing concerns that the accident has revealed serious flaws in the maintenance capabilities of the military. These include a shortage of skilled engineers and possible problems with technology being stretched to its limits.

GSDF troops on Thursday recovered one of the four rotor blades belonging to the AH-64D Apache attack helicopter from a paddy field around 500 metres from where it crashed into two houses in the town of Kanzaki, Saga prefecture, southern Japan. As well as the deaths, an 11-year-old girl was injured.

The helicopter was on a training mission immediately after a scheduled overhaul. Reports suggest the main rotor head was replaced after it reached its 1,750-hour service life. Given that at least one of the rotors was found far from the rest of the vehicle, the focus of the investigation appears to be on the rotor head and how it was fitted.

The military is keen to get the answers quickly as this is the fourth fatal crash involving Japanese military aircraft since April.

“We cannot forget that there have been a number of incidents involving US military aircraft suffering in-flight problems in the last few months as well,” said Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs. “Everyone will be holding their breath until the next accident because in truth, helicopters are pretty dangerous.”

The Japanese media has been speculating about the possible cause of the most recent crash, with Jiji Press quoting a former GSDF helicopter pilot as saying the increased workload on equipment and personnel may be a factor.

“While personnel are more skilful than ever, they seem to be busy with increased workloads,” Noboru Yamaguchi said.

Aircraft have also become more sophisticated in recent years, making the job of maintaining them more challenging. There has also been a decline in the numbers of experienced pilots and skilled engineers.

Pilots can be lured away with the chance to make more money in the private sector, meaning young pilots have fewer “old hands” to learn from, while mechanics are also opting for private sector jobs. At the same time, a shortage of new recruits is being blamed on the falling national birth rate, something that is affecting many industries.

All those factors, in turn, undermine Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish effort to create a more powerful military and adopt a more outward-looking foreign policy stance.

In an editorial, the Yomiuri newspaper has demanded that the Defence Ministry ensure that sufficient budgets are available for maintenance work and that enough engineers are available to carry out the work.

Lance Gatling, a defence analyst from Tokyo-based Nexial Research, said it is possible that analysts will have narrowed the problem down to component failure, incorrect maintenance or a combination of the two.

“The Japanese military tends to over-maintain its equipment, in comparison to the US military, and use it more sparingly,” he told the South China Morning Post. “This particular aircraft is a tried-and-tested technology and the Japanese will not be the only ones who want to find out what went wrong as it is used extensively by the US and many of its other allies.”