Japan’s government has confirmed its choice of the F-35 Lightning II as its new air-defence fighter, waving aside concerns about cost and technology access.
The F-35 is made by US contractor Lockheed Martin and other firms, and is prized for its capability to evade radar and penetrate enemy air defences.
The Pentagon office that runs the Lockheed Martin Corp said in a statement, "The F-35 Program Office looks forward to strengthening partnerships with Japan, and contributing to enhanced security throughout the Asia Pacific region."
Japan is the second country after Israel to order the F-35 under the US government's foreign military sales program. The Japanese defence ministry said it chose the F-35 over the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet partly due to its stealth capabilities. Japanese defence minister Yasuo Ichikawa said, “There are changes in the security environment and the actions of various nations and we want to have a fighter that has the capacity to cope.”
Mr Ichikawa said the decision was also influenced by the fact that Japanese companies can be involved in the production of the jet domestically, and can provide technical and logistical support as “Japan's aviation industry is widely regarded as being in a technical league of its own.” Lockheed Martin said Japan’s role in the construction of the F-35 would be mainly assembling the planes while the F-35’s parts would continue to be made by the original partner nations.
Lockheed Martin’s senior officials said that Japan could well become "global suppliers to the F-35 stealth fighter program," but also said that for this to happen the Japanese government would have to revoke its ban on military exports, which would theoretically enable Japanese contractors to bid for lucrative defence contracts in the US and elsewhere.
Japan could also be able to utilize its domestic manufacturers to tap into foreign markets and make cost-effective purchases of military hardware, including ships, aircraft carriers, jets, helicopters, missiles and next-generation electronic and laser-based weapons.
The widely expected decision by the Japanese cabinet would involve the purchase of 42 aircraft and could be initially worth $7 billion, and would set the stage for F-35s, expected to replace Japan’s aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms, to become Japan’s main fighter.
Francis Tusa, a defence analyst based in the UK, said Japan’s choice of the F-35 rather than the Typhoon shows that Japan valued its defence alliances more than potential industrial opportunity. He added that unlike the US, Tokyo could scarcely rely on the Europeans to come to the rescue if tensions with China or North Korea went out of hand.
However, some question the timing of the deal, since many believe that Lockheed Martin may struggle to meet Japan’s 2016 deadline, potentially leaving the country with a gap in its defences. Lockheed Martin insisted it would meet the deadline and that its deal with Japan demonstrated this.
Report: Pentagon hails Japan's F-35 order (Reuters, 20 Dec 2011)
Report: Japan opts for US F-35 fighter (Financial Times, 20 Dec 2011)
Report: Japan picks F-35 stealth jets to replace aging fleet (Xinhua, 20 Dec 2011)
Other countries mull F-35 acquisition
Japan's initial order provided major support for what has become the most expensive military program in history. It has been beset by cost over-runs and design concerns that have led some US defence officials and lawmakers to urge the Pentagon to reduce its planned purchase of hundreds of jets. Boosting the order book would lower the average cost of the F-35, which Lockheed Martin estimates at around $65 million over the life of the program, though the early planes are costing twice as much.
Against this need, Lockheed Martin is also ready to offer its advanced F-35 fighter to South Korea and sees potential for other orders after it scored a victory in securing Japanese orders. Steve O'Bryan, vice president, F-35 Program Integration and Business Development, said South Korea, which is expected to make a choice on a 60-plane order next year, had requested information on the plane. He also indicated potential orders from Australia and Singapore.
Report: Lockheed Sees South Korea Potential For F-35 Jet (Wall Street Journal, 20 Dec 2011)
Japanese purchase to augment US position in Asia: Forbes
The Japanese purchase is seen to be boosting the position of the US in Asia, according to a commentary in Forbes. The F-35 is the only next-generation fighter being developed or built by the US, as “legacy” fighters like the F-15 and F-16 may not be able to keep up with the development of advanced air defence systems and fighters by potential adversaries.
The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has raised the spectre of instability in the region. With Russia and China also having longstanding territorial disputes with Japan and China rapidly expanding its military prowess, Tokyo is increasingly concerned about its security. The Japanese decision to acquire the F-35s from the US was thus a logical step, as it would improve Japanese “interoperability” with US forces so as to make joint missions more effective. South Korea is likely to follow suit, enabling the US to “maintain a coalition of friendly forces in the region that operate compatible combat systems.”
With both Australia and Japan now committed to the F-35 program, it will be easier for US policymakers to “construct an arc of like-minded nations across the Western Pacific that can restrain a rising China’s military pretensions by fielding the most advanced military equipment.” Moreover, it is assumed that Chinese leaders will hesitate to take belligerent action against countries that have weapons they are unable to track.
With regards to cost, it is concluded that while a “legacy” fighter may be cheaper, the survivability and deterrent effect of the F-35 will make it more cost-effective in the long run for Japan, which needs the aircraft to keep potential aggressors at bay, and the US, which would be better able to cement its position in Asia.
Analysis: Japan Fighter Buy Bolsters U.S. Leverage In Asia (Forbes, 20 Dec 2011)