Japan frets over the US's F-22s
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - Across the world, potential buyers, rivals and military experts are
watching closely United States President Barack Obama's decision on whether or
not to continue building the costly F-22 stealth fighter, Japan is certainly no
No one expects the US to lose its global military hegemony any time soon, but
Obama's decision - which has to be made by March 1 - could be a bellwether of
how the global economic upheaval will shape American military planning in the
coming years. It is also likely to be a good indication of how he will
manage relations between the US government and the military-industrial complex.
In Japan, the first would-be overseas buyer if given the chance, there is all
kinds of speculation on the issue of Lockheed-Martin's F-22 Raptor, considered
the most advanced air-superiority fighter in the world, and the F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter, a next-generation, one-engined supersonic stealth aircraft.
Japan could eventually buy one, or both, or neither. It's still hard to find
The US Air Force estimates that the F-22s would cost about $142 million
apiece, but when development expenses are added, the price tag soars to
more than $350 million per plane. News reports in 2007 said Japan would be
willing to pay $300 million each for a fleet of 100. (See
Japan fired up over US fighter
May 5, 2007>.)
Some military analysts have said that to replace its aging fleet of about 90
Mitsubishi/McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ fighters, the Japanese Ministry of Defense
will maintain its pursuit of F-22 fighter jets. This is based on the assumption
that the US Congress will lift its ban on the export of its most advanced US
fighters to Japan, which is feasible considering Japan's role as a linchpin of
US security interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
They believe Washington is willing to preserve the golden era of US-Japan
relations, epitomized by the rapport between former US president George W Bush
and former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Some Japanese newspapers, such as the Yomiuri Shimbun, have also reported that
faced with continued intransigence from the US Congress over lifting the ban,
which is afraid of a cutting-edge technology leak over the possible F-22
fighter sale to Japan, Tokyo will begin to shift towards the other five
contenders to replace the F-4 fleet.
Namely, these are Lockheed-Martin's F-35, Eurofighter's Typhoon, Boeing's
F-15FX and F/A-18E/F and Dassault's Rafale.
But many are afraid that should the Japanese government order the Eurofighter's
Typhoon, the US government would interrupt such negotiations and ask Japan to
reconsider them in respect of the bilateral security relationship.
Some are also concerned that Japan's stalled efforts to relocate the US Marine
Corps' Air Station Futenma within Okinawa prefecture have already discouraged
the US from exporting F-22 stealth fighters to Japan, an indication they say of
Washington's waning desire to strengthen the US-Japan alliance as part of its
security strategy in the northeast Asian region. The relocation issue has been
deadlocked for more than a decade, mainly due to local opposition.
"I don't think Okinawa is a factor at all," Michael Green, former senior
director for Asian affairs of the White House National Security Council, said
in an interview with Asia Times Online last week. The "biggest issue is whether
the USAF [US Air Force] will buy enough to keep the line open until a Japan
export version is ready."
Others have also pointed out that Washington is less willing to export F-22
stealth fighters to Tokyo as it could strain strategically important Sino-US
relations. Obama's decision on the F-22 fighter program - with its wider
implications for Japan-US and China-US ties - will make things clearer on this
"The US is cautious of military technology transfer," said Hideshi Takesada of
the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies, a think-tank attached to
the Japanese Ministry of Defense. "It also won't sell the F-22 to the UK and
Australia, among others. It should be hard for Japan to receive such special
considerations from the US. Should Japan stick to [its plans to buy] the
state-of-the-art fighter, it would prove to be damaging to the national
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) currently possesses about 360 jet
fighters, with three different models. It has about 200 F-15s, about 70 F-2s
and about 90 F-4EJ jets, but the latter have been used since the Vietnam War
and are scheduled to be retired by 2013.
Japan has repeatedly said throughout 2008 that it is seeking access to
information on the F-22's technologies and performance data to review its
capabilities before procuring next-generation (FX) fighters for the JASDF to
replace the aging F-4EJs.
Japan's Defense Ministry was previously scheduled to begin the acquisition of
next-generation FX fighters for the JASDF during the fiscal year 2009 starting
this coming April, but delayed this before its deadline of September, 2008. It
refrained from requesting any part of the national budget, citing difficulties
gathering information about candidate airplanes such as the F-22.
Instead, it requested 89.2 billion yen (US$996 million) in the national budget
to upgrade 22 F-15s to improve air defense capabilities, according to a
spokesman at the ministry.
In an effort to reduce the impact of a delayed FX selection, the JASDF is
seeking to extend the life of the F-4EJ fighters by using them "more
efficiently", the spokesman said.
Although this is little-known among foreign observers, the ministry also
requested about 8.5 billion yen in the next fiscal year budget for preliminary
work to develop a Japanese version of the stealth fighter called Shinshin,
meaning the Heart of God. The ministry plans to spend a total of 39.4 billion
yen until the fiscal 2015 to develop the Shinshin.
"This is a long-term plan, so nothing related to the FX selection this time
around," the spokesman said.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. He can be contacted at