JASDF F-15J air superiority fighters. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user Delta16v.

JASDF F-15J air superiority fighters. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user Delta16v.

For more than forty years, as part of an alliance with the United States, Japan was allowed access to some of the very best fighters in the world. A string of American fighters, starting with the F-86 Sabre, then the F-104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom and finally the F-15 provided the mainstay of the Air Self Defense Forces. Offering Japan first-rate fighters only nine years after World War II may sound odd, but America was convinced that postwar Japan was a vital strategic ally. The doors of the Arsenal of Democracy swung open wide and Japan (and America) benefitted enormously.

Of course, Japan didn’t realize that, forty years later, those doors would close a little bit and the F-15 would be the final first rank fighter it would have access to. In 1998, the so-called “Obey Amendment” to the U.S. defense budget prohibited the U.S. from exporting the F-22 Raptor abroad. Although practically nobody comes out and says it, the Obey Amendment is likely the result of transfers of U.S. technology from Israel to the People’s Republic of China, which resulted in aircraft such as the J-10. Realistically the likelihood of an arms transfer ban specifically targeting Israel is exactly zero, and as a result the F-22 was banned from export to any country, no matter how loyal to the United States.

IAI Lavi and J-10 fighters, comparison.

Separated at birth? IAI Lavi and J-10 fighters, comparison.

Since the passage of the act the official line has been that the F-35 is the American fighter reserved for Japan. Various efforts, some led by members of Congress have tried to overturn the F-22 ban, but those have run into the reality that nobody could promise that F-22 technology would ever be leaked again…especially by a certain country. So the F-22 remained the sole ward of the United States Air Force, and when the production line ended, the tooling was put into storage in the unlikely event the aircraft would be resurrected.

Now, imagine you’re Japan. You’ve enjoyed cozy relationship with the American Military-Industrial Complex for decades, getting the very best fighters, and even the right to produce those fighters, under license, in Japan. You’ve held up your end of the bargain, and you expect the relationship to continue. You limit your own fighter production program to licensed builds, not bothering to develop indigenous designs. Why should you?

Along comes the Obey Amendment…and you’re screwed. You have an aging fleet of F-4EJ Phantom fighters you expected to replace with F-22s, and that’s not going to happen. America instead offers you the F-35 Lightning II, a multi-role fighter over budget, behind schedule, and worst of all, it doesn’t suit your requirements. You wanted a two engine air superiority fighter ? You can’t have it. Why? Because you can’t be trusted with the technology. Why now? Because we said so.

Will Japan get its hands on a slice of the JSF consortium's pie?

Do you know anyone excited about this plane? Neither do I.

If you were Japan, would that not make you more than a little uneasy about your access to future weapons systems? Especially with China breathing down your neck?

The answer is yes, that is making Japan very  uneasy. And it is taking steps. Consider this article that came out just today.

Japan, France to start talks to jointly develop military equipment

SINGAPORE–Despite Japanese objections to France’s military equipment sales to China and Russia, Japan has agreed to hold official talks on joint weapons development with France.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on June 2 met with his French counterpart on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit here. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian showed a strong interest in Japanese weapons-related technology, and proposed that the two nations jointly develop military weapons and equipment.

Onodera and Le Drian agreed that Japan and France will begin talks aimed at hammering out an agreement to carry out joint arms development, beginning with the bilateral summit scheduled for June 7 in Tokyo.

“I think there is no difference with France in our thinking on this,” Onodera told reporters after the meeting with Le Drian, showing his support for joint arms development efforts.

(Asahi Shimbun, June 3rd, 2013. Link)

A little more than a year ago, Japan signed a similar deal with the U.K.

Japan, U.K. agree on arms development

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and British leader David Cameron agreed Tuesday in Tokyo to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation, including joint weapons development, in what will be the first such case since Japan eased its de facto ban on arms exports.

It is also the first time Japan has agreed to develop weapons with a country other than the United States.

Noda and Cameron agreed to launch at least one joint weapons program, according to a joint statement released after their 30-minute-long summit and one-hour working dinner at the prime minister’s office.

Japanese officials said the two leaders did not discuss specific weapons systems for development. But they did mention Rolls-Royce engine technology for helicopters during their talks, the officials said.

(The Japan Times, April 11, 2012. Link)

If you wanted partners in defense technology who have something to offer Japan, and who aren’t the United States, then France and the United Kingdom are your ideal choices. Japan is very clearly beginning to diversify its arms connections as a hedge against future technology bans from any one supplier. Who can say what the Americans are going to ban next?

Yes, these initial reports are vague. Yes Japan is indecisive, but when it pushes in a direction, it does so decisively. The F-35 Lightning II won the F-X fighter competition in part because of the U.S. – Japan alliance and the presence of American troops in Japan. The Eurofighter Typhoon lost because Japan has few, if any, concrete defense agreements with the Europeans and the closest European troops are in French Micronesia. But if the rules of the game have changed, that Japan no longer has a tacit guarantee of the best weapons on the market, then it is in Japan’s interests to ensure that foreign industry, or even domestic industry, can provide a substitute. With the relaxing of Japanese arms export laws, Japan may even jointly develop and sell abroad weapons systems that compete with American designs.

The blanket ban of the Obey Amendment may prove both a tactical and strategic mistake for the American Military-Industrial Complex and its gilded array of weapons systems.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch