As the world is reeling from the immediate crisis of the covid-19 pandemic and its still unknown economic, political, and strategic long-term impacts, Japan is in the early stages of its F-2 fighter aircraft replacement process. A weighty decision at any time, let alone in days like these.
Procurement of big-ticket weapons systems like ships or aircraft is always a hugely public, political, and contentious affair. Each step in the decision-making cycle inevitably involves thousands of jobs, many more thousands of components and subsystems, and national pride. A leading-edge fighter aircraft or sophisticated submarine is seen as a physical testament to a country’s engineering and strategic prowess. Ego and honor co-mingle with debate over radar cross-section and gas turbines. In Japan’s case, there is also the need to weigh the operational and technical needs of its ally, the United States, against its own sovereign requirements.
Against this backdrop, the U.S. is soon set to renegotiate its Host Nation Support agreement (HNS) with Japan. HNS negotiations, long the province of bean counters and career bureaucrats, involve granular arguments over who pays for a base, the salary of local employees, and other such minutiae. Though esoteric, they are vitally important. They provide the financial foundation for day-to-day operations and sound alliance management.
Mixing these two quiet, but vitally important, alliance negotiations with concerns over a major weapons purchase is always a potential recipe for alliance conflict. It is also where Japan and the United States find themselves with the coming replacement for Japan’s F-2 fighter, the notional F-3.
Japan and the U.S. have been in this position before. The F-2’s development process was a bitter affair that coincided with the height of U.S.-Japan trade tensions in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The U.S was concerned that Japan’s drive for a wholly domestically produced aircraft would result in a turkey. Japan, in turn, was disappointed with what it saw as a U.S. power move to prohibit Japanese access to sensitive defense technology.
The resulting compromise was the F-2, a “Goldilocks” solution that suited both sides in the benign international security environment that was the 1990s. Japan was left dissatisfied with the performance of its new fighter, and the U.S. was frustrated that Japan spent bundles of yen (and considerable political capital) merely to procure a slightly enhanced F-16. (end of excerpt)
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