Japanese air bag component maker Daicel Corp. and Britain’s biggest defense firm, BAE Systems, are designing an air bag for military helicopters that they hope to sell to the U.S. Army, according to three sources with knowledge of the proposal.
The two companies will finalize a design in the coming months and then present a prototype to the U.S. Army, which, if interested, will ask for a formal proposal, according to one of the sources, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
After the U.S. Army, they would offer the air bags to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and eventually to commercial customers, the source said.
BAE is in talks with other Japanese firms on three or four separate military-related projects, the sources said.
They declined to elaborate, but BAE’s interest points to growing military industrial and security ties between Japan and the United Kingdom as Tokyo looks to broaden its alliances beyond Washington.
The air bag project also marks Daicel’s first foray into foreign military markets and may be a sign that Japanese corporations are finally warming to defense-related exports.
There have been few such deals since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended a decades-old ban on arms exports two years ago. Experts say Japanese firms are wary of pacifist sentiments at home and unsure how to win business after decades of isolation from foreign military markets.
“Japan needs success stories” to vindicate Abe’s decision, the first source said. “Air bags are an easy product to offer as a military export.”
Megan Mitchell, a BAE spokeswoman, said the firm is expanding industrial partnerships to develop technologies for the Japanese and export markets, including helicopter air bag systems for military use. She gave no further details.
Daicel, which supplies the Ground Self-Defense Force with explosives and also makes materials used in products ranging from flat-panel displays to cigarette filters, declined to comment.
BAE, a long-standing supplier of military equipment to the U.S. Army, has already made cockpit air bag systems (CABS) designed to cushion helicopter pilots from the impact of a crash the same way air bags deploy during car accidents. It says these can reduce casualties by as much as 30 percent.
It fitted U.S. Army helicopters, including Blackhawk troop carriers, with air bags more than a decade ago before the project was wound down.
Since its defeat in World War II, Japan’s security has been guaranteed by Washington and its military industries revived and nurtured by U.S. defense companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Raytheon Co., Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp.
As Abe, with U.S.-backing, abandons that postwar status quo in favor of a broader regional security role and overseas alliances, non-U.S. arms manufacturers such as BAE are seeking out industrial ties that will add Japanese technology to their global supply chains, the sources said.
BAE is offering industrial advice to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan’s biggest defense contractor, as it tries to win the $35 billion deal to build a new fleet of submarines for Australia, the sources added.
A BAE spokeswoman said last June the company had also discussed the possibility of being a partner with Mitsubishi Heavy on the body design of a new amphibious assault vehicle that the maker of Japan’s main battle tank is developing.
Complementing growing industrial ties is a deepening strategic partnership between Tokyo and London.
In 2012, the two countries agreed to cooperate in developing defense equipment, the first such collaboration for Tokyo beyond the United States since World War II. Subsequent accords established regular high-level talks and created a framework for sharing defense technology.
Last month, Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and Foreign Secretary Richard Hammond visited Japan for talks with their Japanese counterparts, agreeing to quickly conclude an agreement to share ammunition, fuel and other supplies for joint military operations.
Britain also said it would dispatch Typhoon jet fighters, built by a European consortium that is 33 percent owned by BAE, to Japan this year to train with the Air Self-Defense Force.
For Britain, strategic ties with Japan is one half of a two-pronged bid for deeper engagement with Asia. The overtures to Tokyo come amid closer economic cooperation with China. For Japan, Britain is a door to closer ties with Europe and NATO.
While in Japan, Fallon and Hammond went to the Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture, headquarters of the U.S. 7th Fleet.
Moored at a nearby seaside park is the battleship Mikasa, which helped spearhead Japan’s defeat of Russia in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. It was built at a U.K. shipyard now owned by BAE.