Japan Seeks F-22s Despite Tech-Transfer Hurdles
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Japan has yet to launch its competition to replace its aging F-4E fighter jets, but Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-22 has emerged as the frontrunner despite technology-transfer hurdles, say officials, analysts and sources.
Japanese defense officials repeatedly have requested performance data on the plane from U.S. Air Force officials.
But while some in the Pentagon and Air Force are enthusiastic about the idea of selling the Raptor to a close ally like Japan, U.S. sources said Tokyo hasn’t received a response. U.S. legislation forbids the export of the jet, and DoD officials are split over whether the world’s most advanced fighter jet should be sold abroad.
Sources say the problem is the tight secrecy wrapped around the stealthy, state-of-the-art F-22, whose performance specifications are so secret that Air Force officials balked at sharing them even as they fought for the plane’s life during the Quadrennial Defense Review.
But Japan would likely insist on receiving enough technological information to build the jets under license, as it has most of its U.S.-designed fighter aircraft.
But the U.S. Air Force hasn’t even prepared the type of plan required to release sensitive technology to an ally, sources said. And fitting the plane with anti-tamper features could cost $1.1 billion, which would be borne by Japan only if it buys the plane, sources said.
Japan has long been interested in the F-22 as a potential contender for the 80-plane FX fighter program, along with the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale and multinational Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), officials in Tokyo said. The new jets would enter service after 2010.
Export prospects of the F-22 got a boost June 20 when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a clause in its version of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act to lift a 1997 ban on allowing overseas sales of the plane. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., authored the ban to prevent F-22 technologies from reaching Chinese and Russian hands.
The drive to lift the ban was championed by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, whose district includes the Fort Worth Lockheed Martin Aeronautics plant that provides 2,600 jobs and builds the mid-section of the F-22. For his part, Obey said he was “significantly uncomfortable” during House debate to lift the ban.
The Senate also will also have to approve the repeal of the ban, which is expected in August.
The cut in the number of planes to be built for the U.S. Air Force would see the production lines close in 2011, and there is immense pressure to keep them open longer. As of June, Lockheed has delivered 71 F-22s to the U.S. Air Force. An export order from Japan could bridge production, allowing the Air Force to buy more F-22s in the future.
“Export of the F-22 would be extremely valuable to Lockheed Martin and others who wish to keep production going past 183 Raptors and potentially fulfill the Air Force’s stated requirement of 381 aircraft,” said Christopher Bolkcom, national defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
Some analysts contend the F-22 shouldn’t be exported.
“From a technological point of view, the avionics, weapons management, stealth materials are all issues with regard to export versions,” said Gordon Adams, director of security policy studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “The USAF might want Lockheed to do a stripped-down version, but then Japan would be settling for second best, and the conversion costs may not be cheap to get to that model.”
Some analysts say that despite its wealth, even Japan can’t afford the F-22, which has a per-unit cost of more than $200 million.
“North Korea and China loom large in Japan’s defense planning, and one might expect already healthy expenditures in missile defense to increase,” Bolkcom said. “In addition to the initial price tag, F-22 operating and support costs would be much greater than that of its current aircraft and other potential imports.”
That said, U.S. government and industry officials said Japan has pressed ahead with other pricey aircraft programs, among them four Boeing airborne warning and control planes at a cost of about $500 million apiece, as well as locally manufacturing F-15 fighters at nearly three times the cost of their American-made counterparts.
“I do not think the U.S. would agree to the level of technology transfer to enable a licensed production [of the F-22] solely by a Japanese firm.
In any model, off-the-shelf purchase is more likely,” said Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu.
A former Japanese defense official said that members of the country’s legislature, or Diet, toured Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ F-22 production facilities in Palmdale, Calif., but the company refused to confirm the report.
One Asia analyst doesn’t expect an F-22 decision from Tokyo soon.
“The Japanese have been procrastinating for quite a while due to the high cost of the F-22, talking about the Eurofighter once in a while,” said June Teufel Dreyer, an Asia expert with the University of Miami, Fla.
Other factors motivate Tokyo’s push for the F-22. Japan is now Lockheed Martin’s largest international market, with annual orders approaching $1 billion, according to the company’s Web site.
Japan will no doubt want a co-production option for the F-22, and some fear that this could let sensitive technologies slip to China and Moscow. China has been mounting an aggressive military buildup, while Russia remains a leading exporter of combat aircraft, including to Beijing.
There are concerns that the most sensitive technologies are the manufacturing and production techniques, as well as the advanced materials used on the Raptor. There also are fears that the electronic architecture, next-generation data links, and the intelligence and reconnaissance systems could be compromised.
“The full-scale co-production like Japan did with the F-15 is not likely to happen in the case of the Raptor because the number of the aircraft won’t be so large. … However, it is critically important for Japan to provide the Japan Air Self-Defense Force with efficient maintenance and effective operational capabilities of the Raptor in Japan,” said Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of The Okazaki Institute, Tokyo.
Supporters contend that Japan is an ideal candidate for the F-22.
“Japan is one of the few nations that has the combination of military need, financial resources, technological sophistication and longstanding trust to acquire Raptor,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “Its military need arises from close proximity to China and the Korean Peninsula, while the high level of trust it enjoys with Washington is the product of a 50-year alliance.”
Japan already has access to some of the F-22’s secrets. Two Japanese companies subcontracted by Lockheed — Nippon Carbon Co. and Ube Industries — were used to produce its fiber sheets.
But the recent North Korean missile launches have Japan in an uproar, and Washington may take Tokyo’s requests more seriously.
“[Fukushiro] Nukaga, [Japanese minister of state for defense], said Japan should consider acquiring capability to attack enemy missile bases, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe expressed the same view. In this context, the F-22 Raptor is one of the most attractive candidates for the next fighter aircraft,” Kawamura said.
Vago Muradian and Laura Colarusso contributed to this report from Washington.