The government on Tuesday selected Lockheed Martin’s F-35 as the Air-Self Defense Force’s next-generation fighter over Boeing’s F/A-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon to replace aging F-4 fighters. Japan plans to purchase 42 F-35s, hoping that the first delivery will start in fiscal 2016 (April 2016-March 2017). The total cost, including maintenance cost, is expected to reach some ¥1.6 trillion.

The key factor behind the selection is the F-35’s stealth capabilities to cope with stealth fighters being developed by China and Russia. The government also must have taken into consideration interoperability with the U.S. armed forces, which plan to acquire some 2,400 F-35s by 2035. But problems surround the government decision.

The biggest problem is that the decision was made while the F-35 is still in an early production stage. The F/A-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon proved their operability through actual combat missions in Libya. Taxpayers should remember the fact that the government picked the F-35 solely on the basis of catalog data, without carrying out test flights. It also refuses to make public the grading marks of its assessment of the three candidate aircraft.

The fear has been raised that the F-35 may fail to start to be delivered by the end of March 2017 as hoped by Japan because of a delay in its development caused by cracks in its fuselage. This problem may also raise the plane’s price.

In view of these factors, a high-ranking defense official hinted that Japan will ask the United States to submit a promise that there will be no changes in the delivery time and the price. But the U.S. has a rule that it will not provide parts and other support to a country that purchases a U.S.-developed weapon before the U.S. starts operating it. The U.S. Air Force expects to start operating the F-35 around 2018. It is said that the obsolete F-4 cannot be operated beyond fiscal 2016. What if the F-35’s delivery is delayed?

It is not immediately known to what extent Japanese firms can involve themselves in the production of F-35 planes under license. Thus it is unclear whether they will acquire enough knowledge about the F-35, which is necessary for stable operation of the plane. The need to change stealth paint at certain intervals would increase difficulty in maintenance. It must be kept in mind that excellent catalog data do not necessarily ensure reliability and a high operation rate of a weapon.

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