Credit where credit is due, Professor Hornung has written a very timely and useful piece on whether the F-35 selection by Japan could end up doing damage to the US-Japan alliance relationship. He straightforwardly details the difficult situation Japan will be in if cost and delivery delays increase. He ends with the very appropriate question:

“Hatoyama showed the alliance how not to renege. Is the United States prepared to do any better regarding its F-35 promises?”

Indeed while the Hatoyama fiasco could have been at least tempered by better mutual understanding, rising costs and delays could well have even more substantial security implications for Japan. Hornung explains:

U.S. officials promised delivery by FY2016 for a total price of 1.6 trillion yen, according to the Asahi Shimbun, but under FMS rules has the ability to change both. A delay in delivery and/or an increased price will negatively affect Japan’s security. The relaxation of the export ban was motivated by rising costs and a collapsing defense industry. With this relaxation, the Defense Ministry sought domestic licensed production of its next aircraft, which would also facilitate technology transfer to Japan. Despite this, the Defense Ministry chose a jet that will offer little involvement of Japanese firms beyond assembly. With Japan’s current fighter fleet of F-4s possibly reaching their operational limit by the end of 2016, any delay in the F-35 will mean a serious gap in Japan’s air defenses. This comes at a time when both China and Russia are making rapid progress in their development of 5th generation stealth fighters and enhancements in their air capabilities, fueling Japan’s sense of vulnerability. To counter both countries’ advances and maintain deterrence, Japan needs its new jets as promised. Without them, it has to depend on its aging jets with fewer capabilities.

Professor Hornung’s piece shows very well what many people, on both sides of the Pacific, feel one of the problems with the alliance is. Few people outright doubt the utility of such a relationship, but many differ in terms of what a “healthy” relationship should consist of. While Hornung points out how the F-35 may do long-term damage to the alliance, it is surely essential to also recognize that the final evaluation likely factored in political consequences which may have led to the selection of the F-35. While the benefit of the F-35, in addition to the much vaunted stealth capabilities, was superior interoperability, and in particular full utilization of the F-35 situational awareness capabilities due to Japan’s deployment of the Aegis Combat System, Hornung himself provides a good explanation of why other platforms may have been better:

What it [the F-35] didn’t score highly on was the level of participation of Japanese firms. While companies like MHI and IHI will assemble the F-35 and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation will be responsible for wiring, there’s little opportunity for Japanese firms to contribute technology or obtain new technology….Despite this, the Defense Ministry chose a jet that will offer little involvement of Japanese firms beyond assembly….While the other options available to the Defense Ministry weren’t 5th generation fighters, it nevertheless had other options better suited to aid its collapsing defense industry.

If Japanese politicians post-Hatoyama fear of upsetting the US (where an extraordinarily unstable political situation creates diplomatic meekness so to avoid the US – intentionally or otherwise – undermining the security policy credentials of an incumbent government) was the crucial factor that led to the F-35′s selection, then we now have a real world example of how the current alliance relationship’s political dynamics may not only be bad for Japan as many have pointed out previously, but also bad for the US. Professor Hornung is right to raise this issue now rather than later so that US policy makers may address it with more urgency. As implied above, it is unlikely that Japanese officials will be the ones to take the lead.

One additional comment on the Hornung article and a crowdsourcing request. Hornung implies in the article that there was a direct relationship between the desire to acquire the F-35 and the relaxation of the arms export ban. He states:

This brings us to Japan’s choice of its next generation fighter for its Air Self-Defense Forces. Relaxing the ban allows Japanese companies to join joint development projects. This proved timely, given that the government was deciding on its next generation fighter to replace Japan’s 40-year-old fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighters.

Rhetorically and symbolically speaking, this was true – the Japanese press made much of the link between the F-35 and the change in arms export practice. However, as a commenter on this site recently pointed out in my previous article on the arms export ban relaxation, there may not have been a pressing legal need for Japan to relax the arms export restrictions explicitly for the purposes of collaboration with the US on the F-35 alone. Technology transfer between the US and Japan was long ago allowed by previous arms export exemptions, and there would seem to be no barrier to Japanese companies receiving F-35 parts and doing the assembly and wiring themselves. The relaxation should have only been pressing if there was a plan for Japan to assemble F-35s for export to countries other than the US, or if the Japanese were to contribute indigenous technology that would subsequently be used in F-35s sold to other countries, whether Japan assembled them or not.

I am unsure about the exact planned process around Japan’s F-35 deal and it may well be that Professor Hornung is correct – but I wonder if readers have any further insights as to why co-production of Japan’s F-35s would require such relaxation?

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch