By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - Although an official announcement on Japan's choice of its next mainstay fighter aircraft is not due until Tuesday, industry analysts and media reports state with certainty that Tokyo has opted for Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
While the decision on the aircraft, known in Japan as its F-X fighter, will be made public on Tuesday at a Security Council meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, some military experts still insist the F-35 is not the best aircraft to fulfill Japan's needs.
Concluding a process that started in 2007, this week's selection was made from three candidates - Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II, also known the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block II and Eurofighter Typhoon. Japan needs to start replacing an aging fleet of about 67 Mitsubishi/McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ fighters.
In choosing the F-35, Tokyo seems to prioritized high-tech stealth capabilities and US-Japan relations over air superiority, say those experts. The plane also has comparatively high maintenance and purchase costs as well as a potentially lower level of participation by domestic firms.
Of the three models, the F-35 is the only fifth-generation fighter among the three, This means it has high-stealth capabilities, making radar detection difficult. It is also equipped with an Electro-optical Targeting System (EOTS), considered the world's most advanced targeting system for long-range detection and precision, a feature that even the F-22 Raptor lacks.
The Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) had four key criteria: the performance of the aircraft and its weapons; price; the participation of domestic firms in production and repairs and after-sales maintenance support from the manufacturers. Regarding performance criteria, the MoD has been focusing on stealth, kinematic performance and information-processing capabilities.
The government has likely chosen the F-35 as it scored the highest out of 100 points across these categories. Although the MoD has received the request from both inside and outside Japan for the exact scores for each aircraft, its unclear if the ministry will ever disclose them.
For Tokyo, it is an absolute must to procure fifth-generation stealth fighters as soon as possible. The issue revolves around the nation's air defenses.
Japan has 28 radar sites, all of which are effective in detecting third- and fourth- generation fighters from a long distance. However, Tokyo is still unsure how they will perform with fifth-generation fighters - China and Russia will deploy the Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi PAK-FA T-50, both fifth-generation jet fighters, in the near future.
"The F-35 has exceptional air-to-air capabilities based on its stealth, full fighter aerodynamic performance, advanced sensors, sensor fusion, and advanced datalinks," Lockheed Martin said in an e-mail interview to Asia Times Online. "US government analytical models show that when flying against an advanced threat aircraft the F-35 is six times better than 4th Generation F-16, F/A-18 and Eurofighter aircraft."
The US defense contractor said this was measured by a term called loss-exchange ratio (LER), which is defined as enemy aircraft destroyed divided by friendly aircraft destroyed.
"The LER for the F-35 is six times better than the LER for fourth-generation aircraft," the company added.
Why not Eurofighter?
There have been fierce debates among military experts over whether the F-35 is really best suited to meet Japan's requirements for an air superiority fighter in terms of military operational capabilities.
First of all, more than a few defense analysts have argued that since the F-35 is a bomber-type stealth fighter, it is optimized for a strike and ground attack role that sees it attacking in darkness and slipping through radar nets. For this reason, they have argued, countries such as Japan which maintain an exclusively defense-oriented policy, the F-35 is less preferable. Rather, the defense-oriented Eurofighter, which has strength in air-to-air dogfights, is preferable.
Countering this point, Lockheed Martin said, "The F-35 was designed and built to counter the most advanced airborne and ground-based threats - exactly the air defense environment that Japan faces today and in the future."
Another contentious point is that the F-35 is single-engined while the Eurofighter and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are both twin-engined jets. For maritime nations such as Japan surrounded by oceans, a single-engine fighter could be risky in terms of redundancy to back up the entire engine system. Twin-engined fighters such as Eurofighters can fly even when malfunctions or is hit by the enemy.
However, when pressed on this point, Lockheed Martin said, "Single engine technology is so reliable today that the two engine versus one debate for safety reasons is no longer valid."
"As evidence, the US Navy and all partner nations have decided to buy and operate the F-35," it said. "This includes nations who have extensive maritime environments such the UK, Australia, Canada, Norway, and Italy."
The F-35 has been developed jointly by nine nations: the US, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Australia and Turkey. Potential buyers of this stealth fighter currently include Israel, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
The MoD plans to deploy four new jets in fiscal year 2016, with plans to acquire a total of 40-50 aircraft at a cost of around US$4 billion. Japanese media have reported the total cost, including purchasing, maintenance and repairs, is estimated to come to about 1 trillion yen (US$12.8 billion).
Lockheed Martin has repeatedly said Tokyo could get the F-35 fighter jets at an average cost of US$65 million each, as of 2010 figures.
The JSF program, which the nine nations involved have invested over US$50 billion in over the years, has faced tough scrutiny by US lawmakers in recent years due to defects, schedule delays and cost overruns. Most recently, an internal Pentagon report called the "Concurrency Quick Look Review" found that the JSF program could cause further delays and cost spikes. The report was made public by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) - a non-partisan non-profit government watchdog - earlier this month.
However, Lockheed officials were still upbeat. "The US government and Lockheed Martin are highly confident that we can deliverer the F-35 to Japan as early as 2016," the company said. "We base this confidence on the fact that we are currently delivering production F-35 aircraft today, that the first five years of F-35 production funding have been placed under contract, and that the F-35 production system has sufficient capacity to accommodate Japanese deliveries.... "
Tokyo announced it would buy a total of 42 of the Joint Strike Fighters from defence giant Lockheed Martin, in a deal worth some $8bn (£5bn).
The jet was chosen over the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The announcement comes amid regional uncertainty following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
There is also growing concern in Japan about China's increasing military might. In recent months, Japan has said it is bolstering its coastal defences after warning of an increase in Chinese naval activity in the region.
Japanese Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa said the security environment in which the fighters would operate was undergoing a transformation, but that the F-35 had "capabilities that can firmly respond to the changes".Japanese involvement
The decision had been widely expected, given the close ties between Tokyo and Washington.
The US is Japan's main security ally and the two countries regularly conduct joint military drills in the region.
The move will be a major boost to Lockheed Martin, whose F-35 programme has been criticised in the US for its high cost and production delays. Analysts say it is likely to trigger more orders, including from South Korea, which is also seeking to replace its fighter fleet.
The exact details of the contract, including numbers and timings, are yet to be determined, but in a boost to the domestic economy, officials in Tokyo said Japanese firms would be involved in production of the jets.
The decision will, however, be a disappointment for European manufacturers behind the Eurofighter Typhoon, including British defence company BAE Systems, and to US-based Boeing, producer of the Super Hornet.
The Asia-Pacific region has been rattled by the news of long-time North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death, amid concerns about what direction the isolated state could take under its new leader, Kim Jong-un....
While this is one of the better examples, a lot of the unnamed Defence source quotes in the beginning of the piece have little merit.
For instance, Japan fields a fighter aircraft different than anyone else.
The Joint Strike Fighter partner nations were supposed to be good for over 700 F-35s. This has not happened because of huge technical delay and various governments not handing over money at an earlier date.
That includes Australia.
The idea that Australia will hand over the money in 2012 for 14 F-35s is not a done deal. Defence Minister Smith is not happy with the program. He very well could recommend pointing that money at Nelson v2 for more Super Hornets.
Japan is both dumb and smart. Dumb in picking a virtual fighter aircraft with severe problems. Smart in being independent enough to never get involved in something like the Joint Strike Fighter Partner Nation Ponzi Scheme.
Because Japan is an FMS deal with strong home-political considerations--along with having some existing home aerospace industry--they will get more value out of the home workshare. Also, the potential Korean F-35 FMS deal will offer better home-workshare agreements. A Korean F-35 FMS deal could look something like how KF-16s were done.
Locally, the F-16s will be designated KF-16. Under the terms of the agreement, Lockheed Fort Worth will manufacture the first 12 aircraft, the next 36 will be delivered in kit form and assembled in South Korea, whereas the last 72 will be built in South Korea by Samsung Aerospace. This makes South Korea the 5th country to produce the F-16, after the US, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey. Major subcontractors are Daewoo and Korean Air. The expertise gained in the program will be put to use in the Korean Trainer Experiment program. South Korea took delivery of the first of these (LMTAS-built) aircraft on December 2nd, 1994.
That is a lot of missing "best value" for the JSF Partner Nations holding out their hands for work.
Note: Israel is different given they receive $3B in U.S. foreign aid credits every year.
Politicians in JSF Partner Nations should be wondering why their country is getting hosed.
Each JSF Partner Nation (depending on their level of participation) gets a fee paid back to them for each F-35 FMS sale. For example, if the fee for each Japanese F-35 is $6M, the Partner Nations would get (assuming 42 jets) $252M split up between them based on their participation level. For instance, the UK is a level 1 JSF Partner and would get a higher percentage of the kick-back than anyone else. While it is not chicken feed, it isn't much either because there is so little work being done with JSF Partner Nation home workshare because of all the missing orders thus far.
The Japan deal is helpful to JSF Partner nation's best value industry (and U.S. industry) in the way that a half-box of band-aids are helpful to a patient with multiple arterial bleeding wounds.
The math backing up the unnamed Defence official quoted in the article is really that bad.
Over-hyping Japan's announcement isn't going to change the fact that there are a lot of technical hurdles to get over with the F-35. That and the original business plan--the heart of JSF affordability; concurrency--is dead.
And, the F-35 will be obsolete vs. the threat over its alleged service lifetime.