WASHINGTON (Kyodo) U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada earlier this month that the F-35 is Japan’s best bet for developing a fleet of next-generation fighter jets, sources close to bilateral relations said Saturday.

Although Tokyo has not given up on acquiring the more sophisticated F-22 stealth jet, Gates’ suggestion is expected to force it to seriously consider going with the F-35 instead.

According to the sources, Gates touted the F-35 as an excellent aircraft on May 1 during a meeting with Hamada at the Pentagon, where he explained his earlier proposal to end production of the F-22 as part of a major review of Defense Department spending priorities.

Washington will send Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, to Japan later this month to discuss the issue, they said.

A Japanese official who briefed reporters after the talks said Gates noted that any exports of the F-22 are forbidden under U.S. law and stopped short of explaining his own proposal in detail.

Under Gates’ recommendation, F-22 production would be halted at 187 planes. The jets, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., cost $140 million apiece.

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