Saturday, September 19, 2009

Japan Looks Beyond F-22 for Next Fighter



Japan Looks Beyond F-22 for Next Fighter


Japan appears to have given up on buying the F-22 Raptor, and is looking elsewhere for its next-generation fighter, according to local media reports.

That comes as the top U.S. military official in the Pacific region made public his opposition to selling the supercruising stealth fighter to America’s closest regional ally.

Adm. Timothy Keating, who heads U.S. Pacific Command, passed his recommendation to a new study group that will advise Defense Secretary Robert Gates on which U.S. fighter to pitch to Japan, Keating said at a July 24 briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Composed of officials with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as industry officials, the group is looking at Japan’s tactical-aircraft requirements. It remains unclear when the study team will make its recommendation to Gates.

Keating’s recommendation was just the latest obstacle to a Raptor sale; a more longstanding one is the Obey Amendment, a nine-year-old provision that bans F-22 exports. Last year, conferees working on a final defense spending bill turned back a House-approved move to nix the provision.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force has four kinds of fighters: F-15s, F-2s, F-1s and F-4s, the latter introduced in 1973 and slated for retirement in the next decade. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force plans to decommission the F-4s in 2010.

Japanese officials have said they at least want to purchase a “fourth-and-a-half-generation jet,” and ideally, a “fifth-generation” plane with twin engines and extended-range fuel tanks.

Those requirements would exclude even upgraded F-16s and F-15s, but would include upgraded F/A-18s, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and the Raptor.

Air Self-Defense Force officials appear to want a fighter for interceptor missions, said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst for the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group. That might mean an advanced version of Boeing’s F-15 or an F/A-18 equipped with sophisticated radar, Aboulafia said.

Back to the F-X

Unconfirmed Japanese media reports indicated that Defense Ministry officials plan to abandon their F-22 dreams and ask for fiscal 2008 funds for the F-X program, a 10-year effort to develop or procure a stealthy fifth-generation fighter.

“It is true that Mitsubishi’s development of its stealth-type fighter is under way, which is with a view to build indigenous fighters in the next decade,” said Naoki Akiyama, director of the Tokyo-based Congressional National Security Research Group. “The development itself would be quite reasonable, given Japanese technologies proved through the co-development of F-2.”

Others predict Japan will forgo an expensive and time-consuming development program, sticking instead with either the upgraded F-15 or F/A-18.

“The Japanese want interoperability with the U.S. military; it’s unlikely to be an indigenous program,” said Lance Gatling of Tokyo-based Gatling Associates.

As for the F-35, Japan declined to participate in the international development effort, which means that it would stand late in line for deliveries, yet Tokyo is expected to ask about options in talks with Washington.

Any sale of jets to Japan may be influenced by concerns on the eastern side of the Pacific as well. An order of either of the Boeing aircraft would keep production lines open, which may be attractive to U.S. officials worried because Lockheed Martin makes the United States’ two most recent fighter jets: the F-22 and F-35.

Any potential sale will also affect what Aboulafia calls a “partisan fighter battle” between the U.S. Navy and Air Force, each of which is jockeying for more foreign sales of their signature war jets.

Aboulafia said there is “no question” that Navy leaders are pushing the White House and Pentagon higher-ups to urge Japan to buy the Super Hornet, which would likely extend Boeing’s F/A-18 production line by “six months to a year” and benefit the U.S. Navy — and potentially the Marine Corps.