WASHINGTON – With its Dec. 20 decision to purchase Lockheed-Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightning II as Japan’s next generation fighter aircraft, the Japanese government gets to have its cake and eat it too. What Japan wants is simple: the most advanced military technology available (or at least better than what China has); activity in the domestic weapons industry; and good relations with the United States. They get all this and then some with the F-35.
Japan is well-known for favoring licensed production of foreign military technology to keep the heavy industrial companies happy. But Lockheed has said it will allow only final assembly, maintenance, upgrade and repair capabilities by Japanese companies — not a level of industrial activity that would justify the high cost of the F-35. This is especially paltry when compared to Boeing’s offer of up to 85 percent and BAE’s offer of 95 percent domestic licensed production for their respective candidates. The difference is that the F-35 did not have to be a simple pork-barrel project.
Japan’s weapons industry has benefited from planned and windfall contracts on a number of military aircraft in recent years. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s fleet of F-15J fighters is currently under a retrofit project to extend their service life.
Additionally, the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami left 18 F-2 fighters in need of heavy repairs. These projects are enough to keep the heavy industrial companies and smaller component suppliers busy for some time, leaving the Ministry of Defense open to procure an aircraft that doesn’t offer as much in the way of licensing.
However, licensed production is not simply pork. It is high-tech pork, which creates jobs and profits in the short term and adds to the industry’s technological capabilities in the long term. It was not until Lockheed agreed to share currently secret information on the fuselage construction with Japan that the F-35 was chosen. Such secret sharing allows Japanese companies to stay on the cutting edge, and can be applied to domestically developed aircraft.
Technological prowess gained during the F-35 production process can be sure to find its way onto Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ prototype stealth fighter Shinshin or its eventual combat-ready successor. This is the trump card the Lightning II had on the F/A-18 Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon; neither of the competing aircraft offered the cutting edge stealth or information networking technologies that Lockheed’s candidate did.
The F-35 also gives Japan a viable successor for their fleet of F-15 fighters. The F-15’s current retrofit program is a result of the Ministry of Defense holding out on its pleas to the U.S. to procure the F-22 fighter in spite of a congressional ban on foreign sales. The extended life of the upgraded F-15 allows time for the F-35’s own delay-ridden development schedule to complete, but soon enough Japan will be on the market for a replacement for their mainstay F-15, and the fifth-generation fighter they will already have in their fleet would be a prime candidate.
Apart from technological and economic concerns, geopolitics was a priority for Japanese officials in choosing their next jet fighter. First and foremost, the Ministry of Defense was looking for an aircraft that could match the capabilities of the stealth fighters being developed by China and Russia. Though Japan was shot down for the F-22, the F-35 is the next best choice. Further, with the U.S. and Australia both lined up as first customers for the F-35, Japan has a platform for military interoperability with two of its partners in the Asia-Pacific region.
The biggest diplomatic advantage of the F-35 is that it sustains and reaffirms the U.S.-Japan relationship. Though some may point to precedent in buying U.S. aircraft rather than relationship tending, recent developments create a need for gestures of goodwill and trust between the longtime allies. The ongoing local opposition to the relocation of the Futenma Air Station from Ginowan, Okinawa, and the failure to adequately handle the issue by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama continues to cause controversy on both sides of the Pacific. Japan watchers have wondered whether the relationship is truly adrift. After the U.S. Forces Japan’s much applauded Operation Tomodachi, which provided disaster relief following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s purchase of the F-35 is another strong sign that the U.S.-Japan relationship is anything but adrift.
In spite of higher costs, fewer licensing possibilities and lack of battle-field testing, the F-35 gives Japan everything it wants in a foreign aircraft purchase.
Much of the nail-biting by Japan watchers was based on fears that BAE had finally fielded a capable candidate aircraft for Japan. Such fears overlooked the fact that without offering cutting-edge technology or smooth relations between Japan and its most important ally, no other aircraft stood a chance.
Humza Ahmad is a nonresident fellow at Asia Policy Point, an independent nonprofit research center in Washington.
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