F-35 Lightning II

There are multiple news stories covering new developments in the F-35 issue, and there’s quite a difference in details.

A quick rundown: the F-X fighter procurement program is almost a decade old, and envisions replacing the F-4EJ Phantom fighter with 40-60 new fighters.  The American F-22 Raptor was the ideal candidate, but unfortunately for Japan, America banned the Raptor from export. Japan then turned to buying 40-60 new Super Hornets, Eurofighter Typhoons, the indigenous F-2 fighter, or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The procurement decision has been marred by waffling and indecision.

According to the Daily Yomiuri, Japan has not picked a plane and is spending 680 million yen to obtain technical information about the F-35.

However, because of the delay with the F-35, the ministry will set up a committee in April or later that will select one of the three candidate fighters based on performance comparisons.

The new defense program will be reviewed halfway through the five-year period to which they pertain, according to the ministry, which plans to also review an inventory of the nation’s main weapons at that time.

The ministry earmarked 780 million yen in its fiscal 2011 budgetary requests for research into the performance of various FX fighters. Most of that money–680 million yen–will be spent on obtaining data on the F-35.

Performance data for the Eurofighter and the F/A-18E/F have already been obtained by the ministry. (Link)

Now for something a little more out there: according to this Kyodo article, Japan has decided that the F-2 is not going to be competitive on the battlefield of the future and has decided to end production. Instead, Japan has decided that the next-best thing is to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The ministry plans to seek procurement costs for the F-35 in its budget request for fiscal 2012 and is slated to begin full-fledged arrangements for the procurement plan early next year through a selection committee to prepare for the budget request deadline next summer, the sources said.

The ministry was planning to retool its current main F-15 fighters and buy more F-2 jets as a stopgap measure, given the delay in the development of the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter capable of flying at supersonic speeds as well as its price increase.

But the ministry has determined that procuring the less functional F-2 aircraft additionally would not be expedient from the standpoint of deterrence and cost, the sources said. (Link)

I’ve been burned by Kyodo before, but assuming it’s true, there’s a number of problems with this decision.

- The F-35 was just hit with a new delay before full production, possibly until 2017. By then the F-4EJ fighters will be nearing 50 years old and will likely all have been retired. That leaves a gap in capability.

- Japan did not contribute to F-35 development. As a result, Japan would have to stand in line behind those countries that did. (Japan might be able to work out a deal where it takes up the slack from such countries that will end up decreasing their F-35 buy, but that’s my idea and there’s no sign Japan is even considering it.)

-The presidential commission on cutting the U.S. deficit is now advocating that the U.S. military cancel the Short Takeoff, Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the F-35, so if Japan was interested in that version (which would be operable from the Hyuga and 22DDH helicopter destroyers) it could potentially be out of luck. The commission is also recommending that the U.S. halve purchases of the F-35A and F-35B, which will make the remaining planes even more expensive for everybody.

The idea of Japan hitching its wagon to a new, overpriced and behind schedule fighter plane (F-35) seems ill-advised, but Japan is determined to buy the latest American technology. Not even older American fighter designs will apparently do. American fighters are Japan’s status symbol, reflecting Japan’s access to the very best American technology and Japan’s importance to America.

The article also says that the F-35 buy will leave the Japanese fighter industry high and dry:

Japan’s move would bring an end to domestic production of jet fighters for the first time since 1955 when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. began licensed production of the F-86, as the company will have to terminate its production of the F-2 after delivering the aircraft for fiscal 2011 through March 2012.

Just think: 10 years after the end of World War II the United States was letting Japan manufacture world-class fighters. And yet today it denies Japan their contemporary equivalent, after 65 years of peace. It’s a humiliating slap in Japan’s face. To observe Japan turning its back on its domestic industry in order to chase the F-35, after being spurned  from the F-22, is embarrassing. Where’s the leadership?

Maybe it’s best to not get too worked up about the Kyodo article. It could be, frankly, bullshit. Then again, all of the above is a real, possible outcome were Japan to actually choose the F-35.

There are still other alternatives. As a Boeing rep said on this blog a few months ago, Boeing could start delivering Super Hornets for Japan starting in 2015, with domestic production accounting for up to 75% per plane. Then there’s the F-16E, which includes conformal fuel tanks and an AESA radar, for the bargain price of $50-$55 million USD, or half the price of an F-35. And the Eurofighter Typhoon is a compelling plane, the purchase of which would be a retaliatory shot against America in return for banning Japan from the F-22 Raptor.

This blog’s opinion is that Japan should purchase an evolutionary design (Typhoon, F-16, F-18) and use the difference that would have been spent on the F-35 to invest in Japan’s fighter industry. It’s time for Japan to build its own fighters. Japan can no longer on getting top of the line American goods, so it might as well build its own. Put that extra money into ATD-X to ensure a top of the line Japanese fighter to replace the F-15J, and watch the American military-industry complex rue the day they set it all in motion.

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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