Japan's Fighter Contest Heats Up
BY WENDELL MINNICK and ANDREW CHUTER
TAIPEI and LONDON - After years of delay, Japan is moving forward on the F-X multirole fighter competition, and a request for proposals (RfP) could be issued as early as next month.
The F-X fills a requirement for 40 to 50 fighters to replace aging F-4EJ Kai Phantoms; first deliveries could begin in 2015 if a decision is made this year.
Contenders include the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
The competition has been delayed since 2007 due to budgetary constraints, political bickering and procurement scandals. The Japan Air Force also delayed the decision, hoping the U.S. would release exports of the F-22 Raptor, but production was canceled last year.
Sources indicate the RfP includes dual-engines for extended operations over water, a local role in the integration of the active electronically scanned array radar, an indigenous weapon system and licensed production by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is facing a drop in work once production of the F-2 fighter ends.
One defense industry source in Tokyo expressed doubts that licensed production of only 40 to 50 fighters would be economically viable.
"The real challenge for the Japanese is to find work for the local industry without breaking the bank," he said. "Starting from scratch on an aircraft program like that is going to be astronomical in costs for the tooling and everything else. So who is going to start an entire assembly line for 40 to 50 aircraft? That doesn't mean they won't try to do something on the assembly of the aircraft, but licensed production is going to be expensive."
Tokyo may have to wait until the F-XX competition, the follow-on fighter competition after the F-X, for 200 to 250 fighters, which would be more cost-effective from a licensed production perspective, the source said. The F-XX competition is at least a decade away.
Despite cost challenges, all three competitors are offering local industrial participation.
"We understand that industrial base is a key element of Japan's national security posture," said John Giese, senior manager for international communications, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. "We feel F-35 offers significant opportunities for Japanese industrial participation, both in production and sustainment."
The U.S. government and Lockheed responded to Japan's formal request for F-35 data in 2007.
Giese said the selection of a fifth-generation fighter like the F-35 would be an "inflection point" that would give the Japan Air Force a "transformational capability" for the future.
Boeing is offering Japan licensed production of the Block II Super Hornet.
"We will work with Japanese industries to ensure that we provide for the licensed production of these aircraft," said Joseph Song, vice president for international business development, Boeing - Asia Pacific.
Song, along with a team from Raytheon, was in Tokyo last week to promote the Hornet.
The push to sell the Typhoon to Japan is led by Alenia, BAE Systems and EADS, which also sent a delegation to Tokyo this month to meet with industry and government officials.
The Europeans see an opportunity in Japan as the new Tokyo government grapples with Washington over the U.S. military base on Okinawa and other political issues. In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseated the long-standing Liberal Democratic Party and has since threatened to reduce the U.S. military presence.
"For Eurofighter, it wouldn't be easy as U.S. links there are strong and deep, but there is a feeling that the offer will be evaluated in a more neutral environment," a Eurofighter industry source said. "The Eurofighter position has also been helped by the good political support for the sale from the four Eurofighter nations."
On Eurofighter's chances, Song said Boeing had to take them seriously, "especially with the change in government, and the relationship between the DPJ and the Europeans is improving."
However, Japan has never bought European fighters, and some say interest in the Eurofighter is nothing more than a ploy.
Though the Rafale fighter will not be competing, Charles Edelstenne, Dassault Aviation's chairman and chief executive, dismissed chances Japan would buy a European fighter: "The Japanese will buy American. They say they might buy European, but that's just a way of putting pressure on the Americans."
The Japanese are looking to have the first aircraft by about 2015, and recent delays and cost overruns on the rival F-35 could make it difficult for Lockheed to make deliveries until 2020.
"The other problem for JSF is that there will be a very small, if any, role for Japanese industry in a program where supporting the local aerospace industry is a key requirement along with capability," the Eurofighter source said.
Lockheed's Giese denies the F-35 is hobbled by recent program troubles.
"The F-35 program fully meets Japan's F-X acquisition timeline and delivery requirements," he said. "The adjustments in the F-35 program have, in fact, strengthened the program for Japan."
Giese said production was on track and resources have been added to development. "The more conservative development schedule reduces concerns of programmatic risk," he said. "F-35 is on track to deliver fifth-generation fighter capability to meet Japan's requirements."
Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.