December 14, 2016 2:00 pm JST
Decisions loom on defending skies a decade or more into future
RYOSUKE HANAFUSA, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- The Japan Air Self-Defense Force needs to upgrade its fleet of fighters, but it is not clear which plane Japan will choose as the successor to the aging F-2. The decision is made harder by the entangled agendas of the Japanese and U.S. companies with skin in the game.
For a while, Lockheed Martin saw nothing but blue skies for its international collaborative project with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. But Boeing is looking for ways to get back in the running -- and there are those who have not given up on the dream of a purely Japanese fighter.
Given the added uncertainties of U.S. decisions under a Trump administration, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force finds itself traveling a chaotic path toward next year, when it has to begin the selection process in earnest.
The Ministry of Defense issued a request for information as part of the process of selecting a successor to the F-2, receiving responses from 89 domestic and foreign companies -- a roster that appears to include the U.S. firms Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell, and Raytheon; the U.K.'s Rolls-Royce; and Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy and IHI.
Japan has a fleet of some 90 F-2 fighters, but they are aging. The Defense Ministry intends to settle on a procurement policy by around fiscal 2018 and begin actual procurement starting in the latter half of the 2020s or the early 2030s. With a wary eye on China, it wants fighters with stealthy design and high maneuverability.
Lockheed Martin has a leg up, having snagged an order in 2011 for 42 F-35 jets as successors to the F-4. The F-35 with its stealthy design was a shoo-in at the time, but technology is advancing and that is no longer the case.
Boeing, having lost out to Lockheed Martin back then, is bringing its F-15 to this round of the competition.
In addition to F-4 and F-2, Japan also has a fleet of some 200 F-15s. Developed by McDonnell Douglas, which is now part of Boeing, the F-15 is a global best-seller.
Boeing is proposing that Japan upgrade the F-15 with advanced electronics and radar technology so it can fly the plane until 2040, and in the meantime collaborate with Boeing so Japan's eventual successor to the F-2 can be equipped with the kind of future technologies that even the U.S. military has not yet introduced.
James Armington, vice president for East Asia-Pacific business development in Boeing's defense unit, noted that the company has a deep relationship with Japan's aerospace industry for civilian planes such as the 787 and 777, and that the saAlthough Lockheed's F-35 is the state of the art now, it has just begun being deployed and the U.S. has already begun thinking about developing a next-generation fighter. That gives Boeing further reason to promote the idea that Japan upgrade the F-15 for now.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has tweeted complaints about the high cost of the F-35, and Japan's defense industry is also dissatisfied with the fighter.
The F-2 was co-developed by Japan and the U.S., and the F-15 is manufactured in Japan under license, so in both cases Mitsubishi Heavy plays a main role, and many Japanese parts makers are involved. In contrast, the U.S. wants to protect the stealthy technologies of the F-35, so Mitsubishi Heavy will not gain much in the way of technology by just assembling and maintaining the planes in Japan.
Meanwhile, the quest continues to develop a next-generation stealth fighter in Japan. Some 220 Japanese companies including Mitsubishi Heavy, IHI, and Fuji Heavy Industries are participating in this project, which saw the maiden flight of the X-2 advanced technology demonstrator this past spring.
For Japan to forge ahead with development of a next-generation stealth fighter will cost tens of billions of dollars -- but it is seen as a way to strengthen fundamental technologies and serve as a bargaining chip.
Mitsubishi Heavy delivered the last F-2 in 2011, so if Japan opts to upgrade the aircraft to keep it flying longer, Japan's young aerospace engineers will miss the opportunity to gain experience and keep Japan's knowledge of fighter development fresh.
Then there is the wild card of unmanned planes, which could make maintaining a large fleet of expensive fighter jets less crucial to national defense.
Japan has serious decisions to make now regarding its procurement policies to protect the skies a decade in the future.
Original post: nikkei.com
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