National | FOCUS

Japan plan to buy cutting-edge U.S. tankers and transport planes comes under fire from SDF official

JIJI, Staff Report

The government is stepping up purchases of state-of-the-art U.S. military planes under Washington’s foreign military sales (FMS) program, but its plan has come under fire from some corners — including Self-Defense Force officials.

The Defense Ministry has sought ¥501.3 billion under the government’s budget for fiscal 2020, which starts April 1, for FMS-based procurement of defense equipment from the United States.

The amount is down by ¥200 billion from the sum earmarked under the fiscal 2019 budget, which included funds for the planned introduction of the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore ground-based missile defense system, but remains more than ¥90 billion higher than the amount budgeted for fiscal 2018.

FMS-based defense equipment procurement is often criticized in Japan because contract procedures are led by the U.S., and procurement costs tend to go up as a result.

The ministry’s fund request under FMS for fiscal 2020 includes ¥112.1 billion to buy four KC-46A aerial refueling and transport aircraft made by Boeing Co. The bulk purchase can curb procurement costs, a ministry official explained.

The KC-46A purchase will be part of the government’s medium-term defense buildup program for fiscal 2019 to fiscal 2023.

But a Self-Defense Forces official has questioned the plan, noting that Japan already owns four Boeing KC-767 air tankers, deployed at the Air Self-Defense Force’s Komaki base in Aichi Prefecture. “Instead, the country should increase procurement of airborne warning and control system planes, which are capable of hourslong surveillance flights targeting foreign aircraft that enter Japanese airspace,” the official said.

A total of six KC-46As are planned to be introduced by the end of fiscal 2024. The first of them is slated to be deployed at the ASDF’s Miho base in Tottori Prefecture, in fiscal 2020, where a new air squadron will be established. How many KC-46A aircraft the base will host eventually has yet to be decided, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

A government official defended the planned purchase of the KC-46A, saying that it can refuel the F-35B cutting-edge stealth fighters Japan plans to procure from the United States. “Increasing aerial refueling aircraft will help strengthen our logistic support for the U.S. military based on Japan’s national security legislation,” the official stressed.

According to materials published by Boeing, the KC-767 is also certified to refuel the F-35B, and such a refueling has been demonstrated by the Italian Air Force.

The Defense Ministry also asked for funds to procure six F-35Bs, which cost ¥14 billion each, under the FMS. The Maritime Self Defense Force’s Izumo-class helicopter carriers are slated to be remodeled so that they can host F-35Bs.

With their delivery slated for fiscal 2024, the stealth fighters are seen to be deployed at facilities including the ASDF’s Nyutabaru base in Miyazaki Prefecture, with their missions possibly including defense of the country’s southwestern islands.

Also sought under the FMS were funds to buy three more F-35A stealth fighters, each costing ¥10.3 billion, for deployment at the ASDF’s Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture.

Currently 12 F-35As are based at Misawa and are operated by one ASDF squadron. With the number set to top 20 within fiscal 2020, there are plans to create another F-35A squadron.

The price of the F-35A is on the decline as it is now mass-produced, but that of the F-35B remains high because it is capable of short takeoff and vertical landing and has a complicated structure.

The ministry also plans to set up a preparatory unit comprising some 70 troops for the introduction of the U.S.-made Global Hawk large unmanned surveillance aircraft at the Misawa base.

The ministry has placed Global Hawk orders under the FMS in the past, with three units planned to be deployed from fiscal 2021. Each of them is priced at ¥17 billion.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5