In Asia, Big Market Seen for F-35
By WENDELL MINNICK, JUNG SUNG-KI And PAUL KALLENDER-UMEZU
The potential market in Asia for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) could be more than 500 fighters in the next two decades, with Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan paying the closest attention.
Though there have been problems in the F-35 program office over the past year, interest in Asia in a stealthy fifth-generation fighter has not dampened. Of all of the potential Asian customers for the JSF, only Singapore has an active, but minor, role in the program.
Singapore is evaluating the F-35 as a Security Cooperation Participant (SCP) and “we are fully supporting their process,” said John Giese, Lockheed Martin’s senior manager for international communications. As an SCP, Singapore is participating in the System Design and Development Phase.
Sources indicate Singapore’s Air Force could procure up to 100 fighters to replace its roughly 60 F-16C/Ds beginning in 2020.
“Singapore has shown determination to stay ahead of the game regionally, in terms of having a more modern and more capable air force than its Southeast Asian neighbors,” said Singapore-based Tim Huxley, executive director, International Institute for Strategic Studies - Asia.
“Increasingly, the RSAF [Republic of Singapore Air Force] has moved toward equivalent capability with tactical elements of the USAF [U.S. Air Force], and I don’t think Singapore would willingly let its air capability deteriorate relative to either potential adversaries or its security partners,” including Australia, which seems determined to acquire F-35s, he said.
Some of Singapore’s neighbors, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, might object to the F-35 procurement depending on the state of their relations with Singapore at the time.
“If relations were going through a rough patch, there might be a temptation for politicians to grandstand,” Huxley said. “What is more predictable, though, is that their defense and Air Force establishments would have another reason—if they needed one—for continuing to improve their own air power and air defense capabilities.” Beyond Southeast Asia, there is growing interest in East Asia for the JSF. Japan has a requirement for 200 to 250 fighters for the F-XX competition set to begin in 2020.
“With respect to both Japan and [South] Korea, Lockheed Martin fully supports each country’s fighter fleet recapitalization efforts through full and open competitions,” Giese said. “We believe that the F-35, the world’s only internationally available fifth-generation fighter, fully meets their requirements, including acquisition timelines.”
However, Japan began working on a stealthy, indigenous fifth-generation fighter program last year. The Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X (ATD-X) is a $500 million study being conducted by the International Public Affairs Office under Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD). Dubbed the Shinshin stealth fighter, the MoD has indicated that only preliminary research has been conducted so far.
The ATD-X is part of Japan’s three-pronged approach to strengthening its air power, which for the short term is based on improving air-toair combat and self-defense capabilities of its present stock of F-2 and F-15 fighters, while a request for proposals to replace aging F-4s is expected later this year, according to sources. In terms of strengthening the combat capability of its fighter fleet, Japan is equipping the F-2 with self-guided air-to-air AAM-4 missiles and upgrading the fighters’ radars.
Meanwhile, its fleet of F-15s is getting an integrated electronic warfare system with upgrades to the radar jamming equipment, a radar warning system and a countermeasures dispenser system, according to MoD documents.
South Korea also has expressed interest in the F-35, which often has been referred to as a front-runner by military officials for South Korea’s F-X III program for 40 to 60 fighter aircraft. Details of the program are expected to be released in 2011. Seoul views advanced fighter buildups in both China and Japan with concern, as well as the threat posed by its traditional enemy, North Korea.
South Korean defense industry sources have indicated delivery of the F-35 conventional takeoff and landing variant could be made as early as 2014 if a contract is sealed by 2011, but a series of cost overruns and delays related to the F-35 international development program casts doubts on whether Lockheed could deliver within this timetable.
The F-35 is not necessarily the only choice for the F-X III. Other competitors are the F-15 Silent Eagle, a stealthy version of the F-15 Strike Eagle, and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Taiwan defense officials have openly expressed an interest in the F-35 as a replacement for aging fighters. At present, Taiwan has roughly 60 F-5s and 60 Mirage 2000-5s scheduled for retirement within the next 10 years.
“In Taiwan, we stand ready to support both governments as they decide how to address Taiwan’s fighter needs,” Giese said, without acknowledging Taiwan’s interest in the JSF.
Since 2006, the U.S. government has refused Taiwan’s letter of request to buy 66 F-16C/D fighters. Part of the reason has to do with increased diplomatic and economic pressure from Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory.
Taiwan defense officials are also pushing the U.S. to approve a midlife upgrade program for 146 aging F-16A/B fighters.
“Many of the U.S.’ allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region today operate the F-16,” Giese said. “We are engaged with many to upgrade their F-16 fleets as they provide for the defense of their nations well into the future.”
Wendell Minnick contributed to this report from Taipei, Jung Sung-ki from Seoul and Paul Kallender-Umezu from Tokyo.