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EDITORIAL: SDF needs to relearn safety basis to avoid more accidents

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A string of serious incidents involving the Self-Defense Forces has underscored the need for a sweeping review of its systems to ensure operations are carried out safely.


It is unacceptable when an accident involving the SDF, an organization set up to protect Japanese people’s lives, endangers civilians.

We urge the Defense Ministry and the SDF to undertake an exhaustive investigation into an incident that occurred Nov. 14.

An 81-mm munition fired by a Ground SDF trench mortar during an exercise by the 37th Infantry Regiment at the GSDF’s Aibano Training Area in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, landed 1 kilometer north off its target, hurling fragments, including bits of asphalt, into the air. Some of the fragments shattered a window of a car parked along a national highway near the training site. Fortunately, a 71-year-old man who was in the driver’s seat at the time of the accident was not hurt, but he could have been seriously injured or even killed if things had been worse.

GSDF Chief of Staff Koji Yamazaki has acknowledged that human error was “a key cause” of the accident.

The members of the regiment, based at Camp Shinodayama in Izumi, Osaka Prefecture, very likely made a miscalculation in setting the target, according to Yamazaki.

After firing the first and second shells, they adjusted the mortar setting to increase the distance, 200 meters farther from the original target, for the third shell without confirming where the first two had landed. The third shell landed close to the border of the training area.

What happened to the safety basics of such operations?

This is not the first training-related accident that has occurred at the Aibano Training Area. During a shooting exercise three years ago, a stray bullet round pierced the roof of a private house 3.5 kilometers away.

At that time, the GSDF pledged to Takashima municipal authorities it would take “all possible measures” to ensure the safety of its operations in the area and report any accident immediately to the local government.

But the municipal government was informed of the latest accident only two and a half hours later. It turned out the GDSF only found out what had happened when it was told by local police about the damage caused to the parked car.

The delay raises serious doubt about the GSDF’s commitment to maintaining the trust of local communities.

The Defense Ministry has decided to suspend all live-fire exercises at the Aibano Training Area for the time being. It is much smaller than many other GSDF training ranges, especially those in Hokkaido, and located close to private houses and a national highway. Given these facts, the ministry should carefully reconsider the appropriateness of conducting live-ammunition exercises in the Aibano area.

The latest SDF mishap came only days after two serious other accidents. On Nov. 2, two F-2 fighter jets based in the Air SDF’s Tsuiki Air Base in Fukuoka Prefecture made contact in midair during training over waters off Kyushu. One of the jets lost a small portion of the vertical stabilizer. The other jet was also damaged.

On Nov. 7, a large truck belonging to the ASDF’s Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture veered off a road and slammed into a house. Fortunately, the residents were out at the time of the accident, which could have been fatal.

The shell mishap at the Aibano area was the third SDF accident in as many weeks.

With a major revision to the National Defense Program Guidelines scheduled to be made toward the year-end, debate is now raging over how the SDF should respond to new potential security threats like space, cyber and electromagnetic attacks.

Even though preparing for such security threats is important, it is clearly necessary for the government to grasp what is happening within the SDF’s front-line units, which are under strong pressure to adjust to the changing security environment.

It is undoubtedly urgent and imperative for the government and the SDF to re-examine daily exercises and weapons maintenance systems for any problem in order to protect not only the lives of the people, but also the safety of SDF personnel.

–The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 17

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