• Kyodo News

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The government said Saturday it will update its F-15 fighter fleet or buy more F-2s, given the delay in development of the F-35, which it hopes will be the next mainstay fighter.

Either option, however, is expected to pose headaches for defense officials, while the government could face criticism that in the interim the nation is letting its guard down.

In 2004, the Cabinet endorsed a five-year defense buildup plan through 2009 that included procurement of seven next-generation fighters to succeed the F-4s that are set to be retired in this decade.

The government had hoped to select a replacement by spring 2008 and budget funds from fiscal 2009, with the U.S.-built F-22 Raptor, which has stealth and supersonic capabilities, the likely choice.

But the United States has banned its export.

Japan now hopes to acquire the stealth-capable F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but the aircraft has experienced various setbacks, including problems with its prototype engines. Its deployment has been delayed in the United States, the spearhead of its international development team.

The government has therefore concluded it would not be advisable to seek appropriations for the F-35 in the fiscal 2011 budget, starting next April 1, the sources said.

So for the next two or three years, the government hopes to revamp its existing U.S.-designed F-15s or buy more F-2s, the sources said, adding budgetary outlays for this goal are expected to be sought in fiscal 2012.

But some in the ASDF oppose the F-2 option because of its inferior performance, according to the sources. Its production has had to be extended beyond its scheduled termination in fiscal 2011.

If the government opts to update the F-15s, it could face the problem of being unable to fully replace its retiring F-4s, the sources said.

A final decision is expected when the government works out its next defense program outline and a midterm buildup plan based on the outline by year’s end, according to the sources.

Even though the F-35 delay is out of Japan’s hands, as it involves an international consortium of developers, critics say Japan’s air defense capability could be compromised as a result of the government’s failed quest to acquire F-22s.

At a recent meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said of the next-generation fighter fleet: “Within the Defense Ministry, there are reflections about having insisted on the F-22. While we cannot say which specific model (has been chosen), we are currently conducting realistic discussions.”

The ASDF currently has around 200 F-15s, just over 70 F-4s and more than 80 F-2s.

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