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Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011

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Grounded: Air Self-Defense Force personnel march in front of an F-15 during the triennial air review at Hyakuri Air Base in Omitama, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Sunday. AP

Overhaul overdue for aging ASDF fleet

High-stakes race on for Asia air superiority


HYAKURI, Air Base Ibaraki Pref. — Warplanes bearing the bright red Rising Sun logo roared overhead Sunday as the Air Self-Defense Force held its triennial display to showcase one of the best air forces in Asia. The only problem — most of its fighters were grounded.

Underscoring Japan's uphill battle in an increasingly heated race to control the skies over Asia, the air review at Hyakuri Air Base came just a week after the ASDF's entire F-15 fleet was ordered into its hangars for safety checks following a midair accident, the second such order in three months.

But in an effort to counterbalance big strides by China and Russia toward deploying new stealthy aircraft, the ASDF is about to get an overhaul costing hundreds of billions of yen.

For Sunday's review, the F-15s — the workhorse of the ASDF — were relegated to ground displays, either parked on the runway or allowed to taxi but not take off. The previous weekend, an empty fuel tank burst and detached from a F-15 on a training flight, causing the grounding order. In July, an F-15 flying out of Okinawa crashed into the ocean. The pilot is listed as missing and presumed dead.

The accidents reinforced what military planners already knew: the aging air fleet has seen better days. But after years of delays and budget battles, the government is expected to announce by the end of December a new fighter deal that will likely shape Asian air security for decades to come.

"The JASDF is on the edge of becoming a major tool of power projection," said Michael Auslin, a Japan security expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "With its fighter selection process, it will signal whether it intends to be qualitatively competitive with leading air forces around the region over the next generation."

The ASDF — with 362 fighter jets, mostly F-15s, F-4s and F-2s — is already one of the top air powers in the region.

But planners have long been concerned by the increasing age and expense of maintaining the fleet — along with this country's ability to match the improving air capabilities of neighboring Russia and China. Japan has been using the F-15 as its centerpiece fighter since the early 1980s, though they have been updated over the years. The ASDF flies about 200 of the planes.

The government's first choice was America's stealthy F-22 Raptor, which can cruise at supersonic speeds and is hailed by many aviation experts as the most advanced fighter in the skies. Japan is the only country where the F-22 is regularly deployed overseas, having done several rotations to the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

Acquiring the F-22 would have been a quantum leap for Japan.

Because of its sensitive technology, the U.S. Congress has opposed selling the F-22 abroad. Budget restraints in the United States have further forced Washington to drastically reduce its own orders for the pricey plane, whose future is now cloudy.

With the F-22 out of the picture, Japan has set its sights on three jets as its next mainstay fighter — the Lockheed F-35, Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The hotly contested deal for more than 40 "F-X," or next generation, planes is worth upward of $8 billion, or ¥610 billion. The first planes are expected to begin arriving in 2016.

Japan is likely to go with one of the American options. After all, Washington is Tokyo's main ally and the ASDF must work closely with the U.S. military. Using the same or similar equipment makes that easier.

Japan's main concerns are China and Russia along with the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles.

China, whose military has been growing more capable and assertive, recently rolled out its next-generation stealth fighter, the much-touted Chengdu J-20. Though that fighter may be years away from actual operations, it is seen as a rival to the F-22 and far superior to what Japan now has.

Russia, which is also making advances in its stealth capabilities, sent two strategic bombers on a mission to circumnavigate the Japanese islands last month — a move seen as a test of the new administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, which had just been launched six days before.

"With the provocative actions of North Korea, and the rapid growth of China's military, along with its increased activity in nearby waters, the security situation around our country is becoming murkier," Noda said in a speech at the air review. "We must ask you to tighten the strings on your samurai helmets."

The growing military activity around Japan has been reflected in a sharp increase in emergency scrambles by ASDF fighters to respond to airspace violations. Scramble orders were issued 386 times last year — up nearly 25 percent, according to the Defense Ministry. Virtually all were Chinese or Russian incursions.

Such challenges have given the overhaul plan a boost, despite Japan's steadily declining defense budget over the past decade — a sharp contrast to China's double-digit growth.

They have also pushed Tokyo closer to Washington.

Last year, Japan agreed to allow tankers acquired in 2008 to conduct midair refueling of U.S. warplanes.

The pact only provides for refueling during exercises, but experts say it a step toward bolstering the capability of both countries to jointly respond to regional threats.

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