F-35 Interest Grows In Asia Market
Successful Tests Spur Nations To Procure JSF Variants
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Japan’s selection of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) over Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter’s Typhoon gave Lockheed Martin a boost in confidence after years of problems.
The JSF program has been under attack by elements within the U.S. government and JSF program partners in Europe over the past several years. Turbulence has included program delays, managerial issues and cost overruns.
However, the F-35 program appears to have gotten some of the problems fixed in 2011. Successful flight tests, including the first ship-borne landing of the F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant, showed many in Asia the JSF could overcome obstacles.
In December, Tokyo announced it would procure 42 F-35As, the conventional variant, for its F-X program, with deliveries beginning in 2016. The $8 billion deal will replace Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms and could increase to 100 to 120 F-35s for the F-XX program, which will replace Mitsubishi F-15J/DJ Eagles.
“The Japanese decision was interesting in that it still appears its initial requirement for the platform is in the air-superiority role,” said Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Given that the F-35 is not optimized for air superiority, it may also pose Tokyo with some presentational questions.”
This is because fitting domestic air-to-air missiles (AAM) on the F-35 could be troublesome.
“Whether the domestic [Mitsubishi] AAM-4 and AAM-5 can be carried internally” is questionable, he said. “And even if they can, could they be accommodated within the integration schedule for the aircraft in a timely fashion, and at what cost?”
Another issue facing the JSF program in Japan is local industrial participation. The nine primary customer and financial partners in the JSF program — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, United Kingdom and the U.S. — invested billions toward the development of the fighter and have pieces of the manufacturing process.
“Fundamentally, the F-35’s capabilities are a large reason why eight international partner nations joined with the U.S. in its development, why five of the eight partners have approved ordering the F- 35,” said Lockheed’s Dave Scott, director of F-35 international business development.
However, questions over how Mitsubishi will take part without the initial investment and development participation have yet to be answered by either Tokyo or Lockheed.
Mitsubishi has been pushing hard for local assembly of the F-X. The last fighter assembly line, the F-2A/B, is ending, and unless some of the F-35s are produced in Japan under license, Mitsubishi could see the end of its fighter manufacturing capabilities.
Industrial participation might require some “finessing” on the part of Lockheed, Barrie said.
South Korea is debating whether it will procure the F-35A, Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle or the Typhoon for the FX-3 fighter competition for 40 to 60 fighters. The $7.3 billion deal is expected in October. Seoul has taken notice of Tokyo’s decision to procure the F-35, and both countries have been squabbling over maritime territorial claims, including the Dokdo islets. South Korea has also been heavily influenced by Japan’s defense procurement decisions in what sources call the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome.
Australian procurement of the F-35 ran into difficulties recently with a government decision to review the schedule and cost of the JSF program. Though Australia has a requirement for 100 fighters to replace the F/A-18 Hornet, it has only committed to procuring an initial 14 F-35s.
Lockheed is not discouraged by the review. “They have ordered two F-35s and approved funding for a total of 14 aircraft,” Scott said.
However, Australia could be keeping its options open, Barrie said.
“With the challenges the F-35 program still faces, [Australia is] also being cautious in terms of keeping interim options open in the shape of the F/A-18F.”
Despite Singapore’s low-tier participation in the JSF program as a Security Cooperative Participant member, it most likely also will keep its acquisition schedule flexible, Barrie said.
Asian customers are recognizing the importance of procuring a fifth-generation fighter from the U.S. for interoperability reasons, Scott said.
“A major advantage for F-35 international operators is the ability to easily operate and communicate with [U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps] F-35s,” he said. All three services will be basing and operating the F-35 in the Asia- Pacific region.
“While the bed-down plans for the U.S. services has not been formally released, everyone recognizes that U.S. F-35s will begin arriving into this region later this decade,” he said.
Beyond interoperability, there are also advantages in “sharing of spares, support equipment and other maintenance activities between U.S. and international forces to more rapidly and affordably repair all F-35s.
AUSTRALIA: Requirement: Replace 71 F/A-18A/B Hornets. Time frame: Between 2018 and 2020 (possibly 24 additional F/A-18F Super Hornets beyond 2021). Commitment for 14 F-35s, although 12 may be deferred. Cost: Estimated more than $10 billion. Future: Second tranche of 58 and third tranche of 28 to be decided.
JAPAN: Requirement: Plans to buy 42 F-35A conventional aircraft. Replace F-4s. Time frame: First four aircraft due in 2016. Cost: $7 billion-$8 billion. Future: Next buy planned in middle of decade to replace F-15Js. F-35 likely candidate.
SINGAPORE: Participant in program’s System Development and Demonstration Phase. Requirement: Unknown, perhaps a squadron. Time frame: 2020 and beyond. Cost: Unknown.
SOUTH KOREA: Requirement: 40 to 60 fighters to replace F-4 and F-5 aircraft under three-phase F-X project. Time frame: Select final bidder in October, delivery by 2016. Cost: $7.3 billion. Competitors: F-35, F-15SE, Eurofighter.
TAIWAN: Requirement: 60 F-35B STOVL and 150 F-35A conventional aircraft. Time frame: 2020 and beyond Cost: Unknown.