If there's one concept that the Obama Administration's national-security team really likes, it's partnering. Obama stressed global partnering when he was running for President, the security agenda posted on the White House web-site cites it as a key goal, and it is one of five "strategic principles" underpinning the quadrennial defense review. There's even a deputy secretary in the Pentagon's reorganized policy shop assigned to "partnership strategy."
Of course, the Obama team didn't discover partnering. The Bush Administration's National Defense Strategy, which was prepared under the leadership of defense secretary Robert Gates, contained an entire section about strengthening alliances and partnerships. But Bush wasn't much of a consensus builder in the global community, whereas Obama clearly wants to claim that role. With the U.S. government currently spending five billion dollars per day that it does not have, he hardly has a choice. America really needs reliable overseas partners to share the burden of preserving global order.
Which brings me to the curious case of Japan and the F-22 fighter.
The Japanese government has been asking Washington for years to be allowed access to the stealthy F-22, which it regards as uniquely suited to its security needs. Those needs arise from being located in close proximity to Russia, China and North Korea -- all of which test missiles and fly military aircraft in the area around the Japanese home islands. If you were living in such a neighborhood, then you too would probably want to have a potent deterrent against aggression, and Japan has decided that buying the F-22 is the next best thing to having its own nuclear arsenal.
There are plenty of other fighters that the Japanese could buy, but with the exception of the U.S. F-35 joint strike fighter, none of them is stealthy. Stealth would probably be necessary to successfully penetrate enemy airspace if the Tokyo government decided it needed to preempt missiles being readied for launch.
But according to an article published in Air Force magazine last December, the F-35 isn't as stealthy as the F-22 in some aspects. It also isn't as fast; it isn't as maneuverable; it can't fly as high; and it can't go as far when flying supersonic missions. So Tokyo wants the F-22, a desire its defense minister reiterated just last week.
This would seem to be what Secretary Gates calls a "no-brainer" decision. The Japanese have been reliable security partners of America for half a century, and they have a clear defensive need for the best fighter available. Not only can they afford the cost of modifying the F-22's sensitive technology to make it transferable, but once it is delivered they can carry more of the security burden in an important region (the U.S. deployed a dozen F-22s to Okinawa in May). The burden for both countries would be eased if they were flying similar fighters, and let's face it: America could use the export earnings. So why not sell Japan the 50 or so fighters they say they need?
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy stated last month that rather than crafting an "arms sales policy," the Obama Administration wants to help partners build capacity by addressing real strategic needs.
That's refreshingly pragmatic. Let's see whether it applies to America's most important partner in the Western Pacific.