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Hurdles to a Japanese F-22

by Weston S. Konishi and Robert Dujarric

North Korea’s return to saber-rattling has brought military affairs back to the top of the Japan-U.S. agenda. As many Japanese continue to have — unfounded — doubts about the commitment of the Obama administration to the bilateral alliance, they are pushing for Washington to allow Japan to purchase America’s most advanced fighter aircraft, the F-22 Raptor.

This issue must be quickly deflated before it becomes a misguided litmus test for bilateral relations.

The F-22 Raptor is a fifth-generation combat aircraft said to have two key characteristics: (1) It represents a quantum leap in air power, and (2) it is not cheap. The complexities of cost accounting and politics make it difficult to put an accurate price tag on the Raptor.

The lowest estimates range from a per-aircraft marginal cost of $140 million to $350 million if research and development expenses are included. To these must be added maintenance and operating expenses that the Pentagon concedes are “very expensive.”

For several years, some Japanese officials have expressed an interest in purchasing the aircraft for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Japan is in many ways a logical end-user for the F-22 Raptor. It is a close ally of the United States with the economic resources to afford the aircraft’s exorbitant price tag. Finally, the procurement of F-22s could potentially give Japan air superiority over China, which is rapidly acquiring more advanced fighter aircraft.

There are, however, serious obstacles to such an acquisition. On the legal front, the U.S. Congress currently prohibits the sale of this highly sensitive military technology to any foreign air force. Moreover, recent leaks by Japanese personnel of classified U.S. data have hurt the country’s credibility when it comes to protecting secrets.

On the diplomatic front, selling F-22s to Japan would make it harder for the Obama administration to resist pressure from other allies who may have an interest in procuring the aircraft. A selloff of F-22s to other countries could disrupt delicate balances of power in Asia and other key regions.

There are also numerous hurdles on the Japanese side. Even if Washington were willing to sell the F-22 at a foreclosure price of $140 million per unit, a very small number of planes, say 40, would increase Tokyo’s defense expenditures by $5.6 billion. Operating costs would bring that figure much higher.

In order for Tokyo to pay for a viable F-22 program, it would either have to cut pet projects, such as its spy satellite system, or shatter the 1-percent-of-GDP cap on defense spending, which most Japanese voters support. Either scenario requires significant political groundwork that has simply not been attempted and seems unlikely to succeed at this point.

Furthermore, for several decades, Japan has opted for the domestic manufacture of its combat aircraft under license from U.S. contractors. Such an option for the F-22 would make it even harder to go ahead with the Raptor. License manufacturing in Japan is a budgetary black hole, where billions can vanish as small production runs and other inefficiencies exponentially raise costs.

According to experts, per unit costs under these licensed production programs are twice those of the U.S.-made versions and sometimes even higher. Moreover, a made-in-Japan F-22 would create extra concerns in the U.S. Congress about technology transfers to a country that is considered an economic competitor.

In sum, Japan’s acquisition of the F-22 would involve significantly increasing defense spending, rethinking the domestic production of weapons platforms and implementing a more robust legal and enforcement framework to protect classified information.

Under current circumstances, these developments are not in the cards. In the past two decades, China has invested heavily in its military and North Korea in its missile and nuclear arsenals. But Japan’s defense budget has been kept flat, or sometimes slightly lowered. Despite its enormous maritime interests, it took Tokyo months to approve the deployment of a few vessels to Somalia under very restrictive rules of engagement.

Consequently, it is not realistic to expect the Japanese government and Diet to suddenly summon the willpower to boost military outlays, cut down on wasteful domestic production (which gives jobs and money to voters and campaign contributors), and pass draconian laws to safeguard classified information.

Unfortunately, conservative critics in Japan believe it is their nation’s inherent right to acquire the F-22, even though their own country is unwilling to take steps that would make this financially possible for Japan and politically acceptable to the U.S. Even more troubling is the assertion that Washington’s refusal to sell the aircraft undermines the alliance — an absurd and illogical conclusion.

Before this sentiment spreads, Japanese leaders should consider whether the nation really can afford the F-22 given its shrinking defense budget. Tokyo should also implement strict policies that will leave no doubt in Washington that sensitive military technologies will not be compromised.

The time may well come when Japan meets these basic requirements and the U.S. Congress, in consideration of broader strategic interests, is prepared to sell F-22s to Japan and other allies. But that day seems far away and, in the meantime, there are far more pressing issues that call for cooperation between Japan and the U.S.

Weston S. Konishi is an adjunct fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, D.C. (wkonishi@gmail.com) Robert Dujarric heads the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus. (robertdujarric@gmail.com)