As Hope for F-22 Ebbs, Japan Weighs Options
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Japan may be relinquishing its dream of buying F-22 Raptor fighter jets, and preparing to settle instead for the Eurofighter Typhoon or the F-35 Lightning II.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has long sought to buy 40 to 50 Raptors to replace its F-4J Phantoms. But the Obama administration apparently has won its fight to end the program for the U.S. Air Force at 187 jets, and Congress shows no sign of overturning the Obey Amendment that prohibits exports of the Lockheed Martin-built stealth fighter.
U.S. and Japanese officials have been meeting to discuss Japan’s FX program, including at the Pentagon last week, one source said.
The F-35 and Typhoon are seen as the likeliest F-22 replacements, but Boeing hints it may bid either the F/A-18EF or a new, stealthier version of the F-15.
But there are problems with both alternatives to the F-22, which, combined with the upcoming election, could delay the start of the FX procurement effort for several years.
“The F-35 is not as good as the F22, but it has more of what the Japanese want over the Eurofighter,” said one Tokyo-based defense analyst. “I think they are going to wait. Waiting increases their options. Right now they have very limited options. Could be 2011 or 2012 when they finally go forward on the FX.” For one thing, Tokyo is not a partner in the Lockheed-led F-35 program, which means Japan would have a long wait to buy the plane.
“The Japanese have really gotten themselves in a horrible position,” the analyst said. “If they had been on the F-35 program from the beginning, all this would be moot. Now if the Japanese came along and said, ‘We want in,’ then whose piece of the pie [among the F-35 international partnership] do you give them?” The analyst said that Japan had dreamed of buying 40 to 50 F-22s under its FX program and 200 F-35s under its FXX effort to replace F15Js.
Meanwhile, chances seem to be rising that Japan might buy the Typhoon, making it the island nation’s first non-U.S. fighter jet.
Some U.S. officials had hinted that buying the Eurofighter-made jet might damage Tokyo-Washington ties, but analysts downplayed that.
“The U.S. is not being fair to Japan on this score. On the one hand, it has closed the chance for Japan to buy F-22, and on the other, it is warning that a Japanese purchase of Eurofighters will harm the alliance,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Security. “The U.S., I feel, should be more reasonable. Other U.S. allies are buying both U.S. and nonU.S. arms. Japan is simply doing the same.”
A European defense industry executive said he had gone from a position where he believed Eurofighter partner BAE Systems had a minimal chance of selling the aircraft to Japan to a 50-50 chance now.
The Tokyo-based analyst said talk of licensed production of the Eurofighter in Japanese factories was farfetched.
“Starting from scratch on an aircraft program like that is going to be astronomical in costs,” he said. “The Japanese defense industry wants to get something out of the FX program, but who is going to start an entirely new assembly line for such a small order?”
The upcoming Aug. 30 election could further delay a request for proposals, especially if, as polls predict, the self-described pacifist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseats the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
“If the Air Force pushes the FX decision before or shortly after the election, it will be seen largely by the DPJ as an LDP program” and marked for termination, the defense analyst said. “The DPJ is not overly interested in a strong national defense as is the LDP. So the Air Force might have to hold its breath until this all goes away” and the LDP returns to power, he said.
“Japan has massive expanses of water to patrol and that’s why they wanted the F-22, due to range and its supercruise capabilities. The F-22 can cover a huge amount of territory without guzzling fuel,” said the Tokyo-based defense analyst. “Its stealth capabilities also make it a great intelligence platform that can hover unseen over a target.”
The Raptor would also help compensate for China’s growing force of fourth-generation fighters, which might overwhelm the JASDF and U.S. Air Force in Japan during a war, said Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice admiral who directs the Okazaki Institute. Kaneda also pointed to reports that China is developing a fifth-generation stealth fighter.
■ Andrew Chuter contributed to this report.