Boeing has proposed F-15FX for Japan's FX programme (photo : Militaryphotos)
Government efforts to select the next generation of mainstay FX fighter jet for the Air Self-Defense Force, a decision likely to have a profound effect on the future of the nation's air defense, have come to a standstill.
The deadline to choose the successor to the ASDF's aging F-4 fighters is said to be 2016. But the Defense Ministry is likely to demand only research expenses for the FX fighter in its fiscal 2011 budget request to be submitted Tuesday. The ministry has unofficially decided to postpone the budget request to procure next-generation mainstay FX fighter jets.
The strain in the Japan-U.S. relationship caused by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's handling of the relocation of the U.S. Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture has hampered Japan's ability to select FX fighters, observers said.
The 70 F-4 fighters currently owned by the ASDF were phased into service beginning in 1971. Many have degraded over time, and some were taken out of service as they reached their maximum permitted flight hours.
In the United States, which developed the aircraft, all F-4 fighters have been retired.
The major next-generation fighter jet candidates being studied by the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces are the F-35 jointly developed by Britain, the United States and other countries; the Eurofighter, jointly developed by four European countries such as Britain and Germany; and the F/A-18E/F of the United States. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.Mitsubishi F-2 (photo : Wiki)
The ASDF wants to purchase the F-35, a fifth-generation fighter jet, which features mobility as well as stealth capability to evade radar detection.
The F-4 fighter, a mainstay of the 1960s and '70s, is the nation's third-generation fighter, but the ASDF hopes to make a leap straight to fifth-generation fighters.
"Russia already is conducting flight tests of a fifth-generation fighter. China also will fly a fifth-generation aircraft in the mid-2010s," an ASDF official said.
However, the U.S. Air Force is not likely to deploy the F-35 until 2015, about two years behind schedule. Accordingly, it is unclear if Japan would be able to import the F-35 by its 2016 target.
The Defense Ministry plans to seek research expenses for F-35 technology in the fiscal 2011 budget.
However, sources close to military affairs said it is questionable whether the United States would disclose top-secret information pertaining to the F-35 at a time when Japan has not definitively expressed its intention to procure the fifth-generation U.S. fighter.
Grounds for concern include the F-35's price tag of more than 20 billion yen apiece, and the potential for the jet's malfunctioning after its development.
Moreover, there is no chance the United States would allow Japan to manufacture the F-35 under license by paying patent fees, as Japan did not participate in the fighter's joint development with the U.S. and other partner governments. Therefore, the fighter's introduction would offer no opportunities for Japan's defense industry.
Currently, F-2 fighters are produced domestically, but that program will be terminated in fiscal 2011. If Japan is subsequently unable to produce next-generation fighters under license, the nation's production and technology bases would be lost.
Meanwhile, the countries developing the Eurofighter are trying to market the aircraft to Japan using a "no black box approach," meaning sensitive information would be disclosed to Japan. They say Japan would be able to develop and produce its own version of the Eurofighter without leaking the developer countries' restricted military technology.
Britain's BAE Systems PLC Vice President Andy Latham, who is in charge of Eurofighter sales, said the aircraft would be best suited to nurturing the Japanese defense industry.
The point at issue is how Japan's selection of a European fighter would affect the Japan-U.S. alliance because Japan so far has adopted U.S. forces' mainstay fighters.
According to a senior Defense Ministry official, "If the Japan-U.S. relationship had not worsened due to the dispute over the U.S. Futenma Air Station, the Eurofighter could be one of our choices [for a next-generation fighter.]"
With no decisive factor, the ministry is also considering a plan to postpone the selection and procurement of the successor fighters and simply maintain domestic production of the F-2.
Prof. Satoshi Morimoto of Takushoku University criticized the government, saying it has no basic vision for the nation's security. "I can't see that the government has any clear vision pertaining to the selection of fighters and maintenance of the domestic defense industry," he said.
(The Daily Yomiuri)