Japan To Launch Much-Delayed F-X Contest
By PAUL KALLENDER-UMEZU and WENDELL MINNICK
TOKYO and TAIPEI — After years of vacillation, Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) plans this month to formally launch a $10 billion purchase of 40 to 50 fighter jets, a program that could make or break the country’s ability to manufacture combat aircraft.
The F-X program will release a request for proposals March 28, sources in Tokyo said. Bids will be due Aug. 31, and a contract awarded at the end of this year, they said.
The competition will be closely watched by the Japanese defense industry. Unless some of the F-X planes are produced in Japan under license, the country faces its sunset as a maker of fighter jets. Production of Mitsubishi F-2s, the country’s only active fighter line, is to close in September.
A deal to make at least some of the F-Xs will prove very profitable for local industry, “but no licensed production will be tantamount to disaster,” a Japanese defense industry source said. “We have excellent engineers, and a generation of skills will be lost.” Three competitors are expected to vie for the contract: the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Boeing and Eurofighter are set to offer licensed production in their bids, but Lockheed may be unable to do so. Japan is not a member of the multinational JSF partnership, thanks to its self-imposed ban on making defense items for export.
Attempts by Japan’s defense industry to repeal the ban have met stiff resistance from pacifist political opposition groups.
This makes licensed production of the F-35 nearly impossible in Japan, said Satoshi Tsuzukibashi, director of the Office of Defense Production Committee at the Japan Business Federation, or Nippon Keidanren.
And that could finally scuttle the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF) dreams of buying a fifth-generation fighter. The F-X program was supposed to launch in 2007, but officials delayed it in hopes that the U.S. would allow Lockheed to export the F-22. When those hopes were dashed, Tokyo set its sights on the F-35, only to see the JSF effort dogged by delays and cost overruns. “The delay of the RfP last year was somewhat because of the delay of the F-35,” Tsuzukibashi said.
Despite the doubts over licensed production, Lockheed’s plans to compete for the F-X, offering some form of industrial participation, said John Giese, the company’s senior manager for international communications. He said the F-35 “meets Japan’s F-X acquisition timeline, both to support the F-X model selection decision to be made in 2011 and for delivery of aircraft and sustainment to meet JASDF’s F-X delivery requirements.”
But for the Japanese defense industry, licensed production remains the bottom line.
Industry “will happily accept the MoD’s decision for any of the options on the table, as long as the MoD secures licensed production,” said a senior Japanese defense industry source, who added that Tokyo must “do all it can to convince the U.S. to allow for technology transfer and licensed production if the MoD does opt for the F-35.” If not, the source said, defense industry favors either the F/A-18 or the Typhoon as a matter of survival. Boeing and Eurofighter are taking advantage of these fears.
Boeing would offer Japanese industry opportunities to develop and produce the F/A-18, including options under the new Super Hornet International Roadmap capability program, said Joe Song, Boeing’s vice president of Asia-Pacific business development.
“We believe we can offer a substantial package to Japan that enables it to sustain and advance its defense aerospace business for follow-on development,” Song said.
Kory Mathews, Boeing’s vice president for F/A-18 and EA-18 programs, noted that Boeing had brought Japan licensed production of the F-4EJ and F-15J.
But the Super Hornet faces stiff competition from the Typhoon, the first serious effort by a European fighter to unseat U.S. dominance in Japan. Tsuzukibashi said Eurofighter officials have been promoting it as a flexible, inexpensive alternative to the F/A-18 and F-35, and they believe it has a good chance of winning.
A European industry source in Japan said technical export restrictions hamper F-35 exports, while Eurofighter has “no blackbox policy,” which means wider options for Japanese industry participation.
A senior Japanese defense industry source said, “The Eurofighter people are always talking about full disclosure technology for production and technology transfer to Japanese industry and the MoD. The guys from BAE are very hard workers ... very enthusiastic for promoting the Eurofighter option for the F-X.” Eurofighter has teamed with Sumitomo, a major Japanese integrated trading and investment enterprise, to fight for the F-X contract.
Yet the Japan-U.S. military alliance and pressure to procure a U.S. fighter may keep the MoD from picking a European fighter, Tsuzukibashi said.
The F-X will replace Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms due to begin retiring in 2015. Tokyo is also considering buying more fighters to replace F-15Js in the next 10 years. That could increase the number of F-X fighters to 150, lowering the cost of manufacturing in Japan.