By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One U.S. Marine was killed and rescue teams were searching for five others missing after two Marine Corps aircraft collided in mid-air and crashed into the sea off the coast of Japan during a refuelling exercise, officials said on Thursday.
Japanese and American officials said they had so far found two of the seven Marines who had been aboard the aircraft, an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet and a KC-130 Hercules.
"One of the recovered Marines is in fair condition and the other has been declared deceased by competent medical personnel," a U.S. Marine Corps statement said.
The deadly crash is the latest in a string of U.S. military aviation accidents around the world in recent years, which have prompted hearings and criticism in Congress over aircraft safety.
"The aircraft were conducting routine training and aerial refuelling was a part of the training," the Marine Corps said, without giving any information on the possible cause of the crash.
The incident occurred around 2 a.m. local time in Japan (1700 GMT Wednesday) about 320 km (200 miles) off the Japanese coast.
"The incident is regrettable, but our focus at the moment is on search and rescue," Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a news conference. "Japan will respond appropriately once the details of the incident are uncovered."
A U.S. Navy P-8A patrol and surveillance aircraft was helping in search and rescue efforts along with Japanese authorities, the Marine Corps said, adding that the incident was under investigation.
QUESTIONS ABOUT READINESS
The incident raises questions about military readiness, something U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said is a priority for him.
Congressional leaders have called the rash of accidents a crisis and blamed it on continuous combat operations, deferred modernization, lack of training and ageing equipment.
Last year, 16 service members were killed after a military transport plane crash in rural Mississippi.
A military investigation said that the primary cause of that crash was a propeller blade that went into the aircraft's fuselage. The investigation added that the propeller had not received proper maintenance and corrosion had been overlooked.
In August 2017, the U.S. Marine Corps ordered its aircraft squadrons to suspend flight operations for 24 hours to review safety of aircraft.
U.S. military accidents are a sensitive topic in Japan, particularly for residents of the southern prefecture of Okinawa, home to the bulk of the U.S. presence in the country. A series of emergency landings and parts falling from U.S. military aircraft have highlighted safety concerns.
In December 2016, the U.S. grounded its MV-22 Osprey aircraft in Japan at the request of Tokyo following a crash southwest of Okinawa. The aircraft has been a lightning rod for opponents to the heavy U.S. military presence on Okinawa, which lies south of the main Japanese island group.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington, Kaori Kaneko, Tim Kelly, Elaine Lies and Mayuko Ono in Tokyo; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)