LONDON - Over the next few months, a consortium of European manufacturers is hoping to persuade the Japanese government to place a multibillion-dollar order for the Eurofighter Typhoon as the country’s next mainstay fighter aircraft.
Also in the running are the F-35 Lightning II fighter, or Joint Strike Fighter, whose development is led by U.S. aircraft maker Lockheed Martin Corp., and the F/A-18 Super Hornet designed by McDonnell Douglas, part of Boeing Co. of the U.S.
Reports suggest that the stealthy F-35 is the frontrunner, but there are concerns over the cost and whether the fighter — which would replace Japan’s aging F-4 Phantoms and F-15 Eagles — can be manufactured by 2017.
These doubts have worked to the advantage of the European consortium pushing the Eurofighter — whose costs and performance are known — as the ideal next-generation fighter for Japan.
The Europeans will have to work hard before a final decision is made at the end of the year.
The strong alliance between Tokyo and Washington has meant that Japan has nearly always purchased its military hardware from the U.S.
But that relationship was somewhat strained when the U.S. decided in 2007 to continue a ban on exporting the highly agile and stealthy F-22 Raptor to Japan, to prevent military secrets being leaked.
Tony Ennis, president of the Northeast Asia region for BAE Systems PLC, one of the European makers in the Eurofighter consortium, argues it is the best air defense fighter on offer — ideal for intercepting aircraft from other countries.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, the airplane which has the capabilities closest to the F-22 is the Eurofighter Typhoon,” Ennis said in an interview at a recent defense fair in London.
“It is the fastest airplane available, it can engage at the highest altitudes — somewhat like the F-22 — and is the most capable air defense fighter available on the market today,” he said.
He admitted the F-35 is “optimized” for strike capabilities, but both aircraft have air defense and strike roles.
Ennis believes the best solution for Japan is to buy the Eurofighter for its immediate air defense needs and, later on, purchase the F-35 when the program is tried and tested.
He said the F/A-18 would be cheaper but is not as technologically advanced as the Eurofighter.
A big selling point for the Eurofighter is that London-based BAE Systems will allow the aircraft to be manufactured in Japan. Tokyo will also be able to have its own weapons systems on the fighters and it is interoperable with U.S. forces.
The bids have been submitted and all three contenders will be on tenterhooks waiting for the result over the next couple of months.
Ennis said that while the U.S.-Japan relationship is important, “We live in hope that Japan is actually going to make a decision based on capabilities and requirements, and not on politics.”
John Hemmings, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, said, “The chances of the BAE Systems’ bid winning are around 50 percent.
“Japanese and U.S. officials in the know have assured me that this is one of the most realistic bids made by a non-American defense contractor in Japan’s fighter industry ever.”
Hemmings said the F-35 is suffering from price, production and technical drawbacks but it is favored by the Air Self-Defense Force.
He added the U.S.-Japan alliance remains an important factor in the deal, noting the perception in Tokyo that sometimes European governments downplay the threat from China.
Craig Caffrey, IHS Jane’s aviation analyst, says decision makers will take many factors into account and therefore it is difficult to predict the winner.
“The Lockheed Martin platform certainly holds a number of potential advantages over its competitors . . . but the Eurofighter’s credentials as a true air superiority fighter perhaps make the aircraft the most natural fit with the ASDF’s doctrine,” Caffrey wrote on his firm’s website.
“The Super Hornet . . . offers the lowest-cost, lowest-risk solution for a program that appears to be looking for an interim solution,” he stated.
BAE Systems is a major design and production partner in the Eurofighter consortium, which also includes the German-French EADS NV and Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA.
The Eurofighter, which made its maiden flight in 1994, is currently in service with Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, Austria and Saudi Arabia.