TOKYO --- Across the globe, defense industry players, military experts and potential adversaries are eagerly watching Japan's decision on its next mainstay fighter jet.
While Japan is still in the final selection process for a state-of-the-art combat plane for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), United States defense contractor Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is already seen as a clear front-runner, mainly due to its high-tech stealth capabilities.
Aiming to strengthen its efforts to win the multibillion-dollar contract, Lockheed Martin last week made a strong public appeal in Tokyo, saying it would license Japanese companies to perform engine assembly and manufacture major components if the F-35 were to be selected.
The F-35 has been developed jointly by nine nations: the US, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Australia and Turkey. Potential buyers of this stealth fighter currently include Israel, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
"We received US government approval to offer Japan, the first country outside the partnership, a very robust industrial opportunity," John Balderston, the director for Lockheed's Japan F-35 Campaign, told reporters on October 6 in a Tokyo hotel where the company was displaying a one-seater flight simulator of the warplane for media.
Asked about what the company could offer Japanese firms, Balderston said, "Final assembly and checkout of the airplane, manufacture of major components, engine assembly, integration and test, depot-level sustain, modification, repair and overhaul, and upgrade capabilities."
Japan has been worried that delays in the F-35's development would jeopardize its planned 2016 introduction. But company officials were upbeat. "We are confident that we will meet Japan's requirements, including delivery," Lockheed's Balderston said.
Tokyo could get the F-35 fighter jets at an average cost of US$65 million each, he added.
Japan's delayed F-X procurement
Japan's Ministry of Defense (MoD) aims to procure its first jet as early as fiscal year 2016, with plans to acquire a total of 40-50 aircraft at a cost of around US$4 billion.
It will choose the next mainstay fighter jet for the JASDF by the end of next month. This procurement will replace JASDF's aging fleet of 67 Mitsubishi/McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ fighters, which entered service in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War and are scheduled to be retired from 2013.
The MoD originally scheduled replacement of its F-4 fleet for fiscal year 2009. Tokyo had long made clear its preference for Lockheed's F-22 Raptor.
But the October 2009 decision by US President Barack Obama to halt F-22 production due to budgetary constraints officially ended any Japanese hopes of obtaining the aircraft, which while costly is seen as the world's most advanced air-superiority fighter.
Critics say the MoD's obsession with the F-22 caused years of delay in the next-generation fighter program, called the F-X in Japan.
The MoD will buy 12 fighters in the next five years, according to the new mid-term defense program for fiscal 2011-2015. The MoD on September 30 requested 55.1 billion yen (US$718 million) in fiscal 2012 budget appropriations to acquire four new fighter jets to replace the F-4.
Four selection criteria
Lockheed, Boeing and BAE Systems have met a September 26 deadline to submit bids for Japan's F-X fighter competition.
BAE Systems is leading the Typhoon bid for the Eurofighter consortium, with support from the British government and Japan's Sumitomo Corporation, while Boeing is offering its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block II in conjunction with the US Navy.
The MoD has identified four selection criteria: the performance of the aircraft and its weapons, maintenance costs, level of participation of domestic firms and after-sales support. Regarding performance criteria, the MoD is focusing on stealth, kinematic performance and information-processing capabilities.
On October 5, Japanese Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa stressed the need to protect the domestic fighter-jet-related industry.
All three bidders have pledged to allow fighters to be built under license in Japan. The question is how much production they will allow. Boeing says 70-80% could be done in Japan.
The JASDF has 202 Mitsubishi-Boeing F-15Js, 93 Mitsubishi F-2s and 67 Mitsubishi-McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ Kai Phantoms, according to the MoD's 2011 White Paper.
Aside from domestic production, other factors loom large. Firstly, the March 11 tsunami damaged 18 F-2s at the JASDF Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi prefecture, forcing the MoD to scrap 12 of them. The F-2 cost about 12 billion yen, or US$156 million, per unit.
While the F-4s have been in service since the early 1970s, the F-15Js have been a part of the fleet since the early 1980s, making both difficult and expensive for the JASDF to maintain.
In addition, on September 27, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd handed over its last F-2 fighter to the MoD at the Komaki Minami plant in Aichi prefecture, ending more than five decades of fighter-jet production since 1956. The Japanese media reported about two dozen parts suppliers and manufacturers had exited from the fighter-jet market.
As if to illustrate Japan's strains in air defense, a F-15J Eagle based at Naha Air Base in Okinawa prefecture crashed in the East China Sea on July 5 during combat training. More recently, an F-15 fighter lost an empty auxiliary fuel tank and part of a mock missile on October 7 during a training flight over Ishikawa prefecture.
Russia and China appear to have exploited the weaknesses in Japan's air defense. The number of scrambles the JASDF had to launch increased dramatically in recent years to intercept intruders, as Russian and Chinese military aircraft toyed with Japanese airspace. Japan scrambled fighters 386 times in fiscal year 2010, the highest number since 1991.
Russia is jointly developing a fifth-generation fighter T-50 (PAK FA) with India, while China is developing its own new fifth-generation multi-purpose fighter, the J-20. For Japan, the threat from the air is increasing.
Japan has never procured European fighters. More than a few experts have pointed out the Eurofighter may lack full interoperability with US military equipment, which Japan relies on. However, British ambassador David Warren has stressed that this is not the case.
Maintenance and repair is another worry for the Eurofighter since Japan is accustomed to US equipment.
As for Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, it is little more than the F-2, or Japan's most advanced 4th-generation multirole fighter based on the F-16. The stealth capabilities of the Eurofighter and Super Hornet are weaker than the F-35.
"Considering all the various factors together such as the state of the domestic fighter-jet-related defense industry, the interoperability with US equipment and China's air capabilities, which Japan needs to be most aware of, the F-35 is the most likely winner," said Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Yonsei University of South Korea.