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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

U.S. F-35 picked as mainstay fighter

Staff writer

The government on Tuesday officially selected the U.S.-made F-35 Lightning II as the Air-Self Defense Force's next-generation fighter plane to replace the aging fleet of F-4s.

News photo
Crackle in the air: An F-35 Lightning II flies overhead for the first time at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, on April 23. U.S. AIR FORCE/AP

The Defense Ministry said it plans to purchase a total of 42 of the state-of-the-art jets, the first four of which will be delivered in fiscal 2016 with a price tag of ¥9.9 billion each.

Funding to purchase the four F-35s will be reflected in the defense budget starting in fiscal 2013.

The formal decision to buy the F-35s was made Tuesday morning by the Security Council of Japan, which is headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. The council had initially been expected to reach its decision Friday.

Because the fighter is still being developed by an international consortium led by Lockheed Martin Corp., the price has only been agreed for the first four F-35s delivered, prompting concerns that the final cost may rise substantially and that the delivery schedule could be delayed.

The F-35 "was evaluated the highest in terms of performance" compared with the other two candidates, Boeing Co.'s F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofigher Typhoon developed by four European countries, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa said.

Out of the three jets under consideration, the F-35 has the most advanced technology and the best stealth capability, the ministry said.

The interoperability of the F-35s with the ASDF's existing radar and weapon systems, most of which have been purchased from the United States, is believed to have been another key factor, and the importance of maintaining good bilateral relations with Washington is also thought to have played a role.

The ministry will demand that after the first four F-35s are delivered in 2016, the rest of the new fighters are to be assembled in Japan. Further negotiations will be held to establish the price of the planes to be assembled after 2016, the ministry said.

The ministry has been desperately searching to find a replacement for the ASDF's out-dated fleet of F-4s to keep up with China and other Asian countries that have been beefing up and modernizing their air forces in recent years. The F-4s were used extensively during the Vietnam War by the U.S. Air Force.

The government's selection was "understandable" given the F-35's high performance and Japan's close ties with the U.S., especially at a time when Tokyo is increasingly looking to Washington to contain China's growing might, said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and an expert on Japan's defense policy.

"China's defense spending has been drastically boosted recently. Japan needs the U.S. as its partner to deal with China," Michishita said.

The ASDF scrambled to intercept Chinese aircraft approaching Japan's airspace 83 times between April and September, a 3.5-fold increase from the same period last year, according to the Defense Ministry.

In January, China claimed that trial flights of its own stealth fighter, the J-20, were successful.

"We're still not sure how China will act as a member of the international community," so buying a new fleet of fighter jets that remain interoperable with U.S.-made weapon systems was critical, Michishita said.

But as the F-35 is still under development, there are concerns about whether the scheduled delivery of the first four by fiscal 2016 will be met, and that the cost per aircraft could increase if problems arise. If the price is significantly hiked, Japan may not be able to afford all 42.

The government is also paying more to purchase the stealth jets than other countries, as Japan's long-standing weapons export ban prohibiting participation in joint arms development projects with other nations, has prevented Tokyo from taking part in the F-35's development.

"Considering Japan's fiscal crisis, it would be better for the government to change the ban on exporting weapons so that it can jointly develop military aircraft at a lower cost," Michishita said."The government should make efforts to reduce the cost as much as possible."

Information from Kyodo added

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