Top Japanese military officials are quietly but firmly insisting they want the U.S. to release the F-22 to compete for the air force's F-X fighter program, and are adamant about fielding the most advanced air-combat technology available.
Tokyo wants a stealthy fighter equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for cruise missile detection and wide-band data links to push additional information into Japan's increasingly sophisticated air defense system. For the moment, only the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor offers all these features.
Access, however, is far from assured, with the U.S. Congress requiring over-sight and approval of any plan for foreign sale of the stealth fighter. The U.S. has been trying to pitch either an upgrade of in-service designs (such as F/A-18E/Fs or F-15Es equipped with advanced, small-target, long-range radars) or the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the F-X program. The primary driver for the F-X requirement remains air superiority--which includes cruise missile defense--for which Tokyo wants the F-22.
Japan also faces the cost of integrating an anti-tamper kit on key technologies, including hardware and software, on the F-22. Estimates range from $600 million to $1.2 billion. Key software that would be protected, for example, manipulates and integrates the advanced, cruise missile-detecting radar and long-range electronic surveillance array, as well as the aircraft's other target-detection and analysis sensors.
U.S. aerospace industry officials say the cost would be no more than $1 billion--if it means integrating a new common processor--and could be "far less," depending on how much or little the U.S. determines must be protected, according to a study done when Australia was considering buying the F-22.
Were Washington to nix release of the F-22, then European manufacturers would try to capitalize on the opportunity. The Eurofighter Typhoon is already being pitched for Japan. A variant fitted with an active "E-scan" radar array and the Meteor rocket-ramjet radar-guided air-to-air missile would offer a capable air superiority platform.
One way to defray some of the potential cost would be if the U.S. Air Force also buys the new computer as an F-22 upgrade. Moreover, if Japan buys the aircraft, it would reduce the cost of F-22s to the U.S. Air Force and perhaps let it acquire a few more of the advanced fighters, a crucial need if the F-35 JSF program slips.
Release of the F-22 is becoming a point of pride with the Japanese, who provide the U.S. forward bases in the region as well as dispersal and rapid deployment options in case of a military confrontation or natural disaster, say U.S. officials. Exporting the technology isn't a concern for U.S. combat pilots, since software packages for U.S. versions of the aircraft will always contain extra capabilities. In addition, U.S. military officials are privately asking administration and senior Pentagon civilians to reconsider the export restrictions, at least for Japan.
"I'm aware the Japanese are interested in the F-22," Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Aviation Week & Space Technology last week. "I'm also aware of our concerns about what we export and don't export of our high technologies. The Japanese are very close friends. We're committed to protecting Japan, so we'll work our way through it. We all need to be concerned about both ballistic and cruise missile defense. It's something that we . . . need to work on."
There also seems to be a Pentagon precedent for meeting Japan's high-tech needs.
"We had an identical situation with the F-15," says a U.S. aerospace industry official close to the program. "It was a point of pride with the Japanese, and even though the F-15 was considered exceptional technology, they had it within two years of initial operational capability in the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Air Force and the Japanese Ministry of Defense want the sale to take place, but what's missing this time is someone pushing it at the State Dept. level. There needs to be political pressure, but right now there's no vocal advocate."
What may change the formula is the growing awareness of cruise missile technology proliferation and the fact that little attention has been paid to fielding cruise missile defenses in Japan, which is only a few hundred miles from North Korea and China and would be the most vulnerable from a surprise attack.
"Once the Japanese politicians realize that it's a matter of national survival, not just national pride, it could generate support outside the Japanese Self-Defense Force," the industry official says.
The F-X fighter competition is "hot--too hot" to discuss openly for defense, industrial and political reasons, say Japanese officials. But they are determined to accept only the most sophisticated fighter technology. As a military issue, the concern is determining just what constitutes offensive capabilities that are prohibited by the Japanese constitution. An effective counter against ballistic missile attack for most countries includes penetrating enemy air defenses to bomb launch sites before missiles can be fired. In addition, whatever fighter design is chosen must have substantial input from Japanese industry to get political support. The U.S. may have to share some manufacturing processes.
Finally, China is insisting that to show good faith, and strengthen commercial ties, Japan must avoid what it contends are militarily provocative steps. That includes Japan's support for the U.S., which would likely intercede in a Chinese military confrontation with Taiwan. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Japanese Diet: "We will never tolerate Taiwan's becoming independent."
The Japanese and Chinese governments have expressed regret over treatment of each other's civilian populations. But Wen says China wants Japan to follow up its apologies for aggression in World War II "with actual actions." Japanese analysts take that to mean they are being warned to stop any action linked to war-related issues. That could include defense modernization, U.S. joint training and operations, or even development of a Japanese air-to-ground bombing capability.
Buying the F-22 could push against those Chinese limits, particularly because of the network integration capabilities and long-surveillance range the fighter brings with it. It undoubtedly would extend the footprint of Japan's defenses. Land elements of the ground-based missile defense system have already been improved with a powerful X-band radar and PAC-3 Patriot batteries. The latter have electronically scanned array radars capable of detecting cruise missiles and deceiving them with jamming and false targets, in addition to their better known ballistic missile capabilities.
The Japanese air force is already adding major pieces needed for an advanced airborne defense. That includes their E-767 AWACS (for long-range, early warning of aircraft-launched, cruise missile attack) and KC-767 tankers (to keep anti-cruise missile fighter orbits aloft for extended periods). What's still missing is a longer endurance fighter with a radar powerful enough to detect small targets such as cruise missiles at ranges great enough to intercept them. New AIM-120 Amraam missiles (C-6, C-7 and D variants) are being developed specifically for high probabilities of kill against cruise missiles.
The older F-15's manually scanned radar has a range of about 56 mi. Japan's newest F-2 fighter (a larger F-16 variant) has a rudimentary AESA radar, but its range and picture is almost identical to mechanically scanned designs, say Japanese fighter pilots. By comparison, the F-22's radar has a 125-150-mi. range and can discriminate small, perhaps even some stealthy objects.
Senior Japanese officials want to buy the F-22 as a continuation of their long-standing policy to field the best fighter technology--an effort that earlier brought them the F-4J Phantom II and F-15J Eagle. In addition to carrying new weapons and sensors, the F-22 can operate about 3 mi. higher (at 65,000 ft.) than other fighters. That gives better situational awareness of the battlefield. It also offers supercruise--the ability to fly at supersonic speeds for extended periods--which allows F-22s to range quickly over a larger battlefield.
U.S. military officials tried to promote the idea that Japan could buy a 4.5th-generation fighter--advanced weapons, sensors and networking, but without stealth--as a bridge to the fifth-generation F-35, which is designed as a stealthy, export aircraft. Singapore made that move with the F-15SG, as did Australia with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. They are both partners in the Joint Strike Fighter program. Moreover, the U.S. is moving its only squadron of AESA-radar-equipped F-15Cs from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, to Kadena AB in Okinawa, Japan. However, so far, the idea of a bridge aircraft has been rejected by the Japanese.
Australia's plans to replace the air force's ageing strike jets with up to 100 American F-35 stealth fighters are increasingly in question and will be reviewed this year.
The A$16 billion ($19.4 billion) programme already faces delays of up to six years that have forced the Government to spend A$6 billion over the next decade on a stop-gap fleet of Boeing Super Hornets, an upgraded version of the 71 F/A-18 Hornets introduced in 1985.
The Pentagon's decision to postpone orders for 179 of the Joint Strike Fighters over the next five years to save US$15.1 billion has created new uncertainties in Australia and may prompt more Super Hornet orders.
"It is absolutely essential that Australia continues to maintain its air combat capability," Defence Minister Stephen Smith told Parliament.
"The absolutely essential decision for this year is a judgment about whether we are at risk of a capability gap. We will do an exhaustive review of that this year."
Smith said more Super Hornets were "an obvious option".
Super Hornets have greater range than earlier models, can carry more weapons at greater speed and with more manoeuvrability, and have more advanced electronics.
Australia's decision will be influenced by meetings in Washington and Canberra next month at which representatives of F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin will be grilled by countries committed to the fighter.
The US attracted Australia, Canada, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands as partners, supplementing its own planned buy of more than 2400 aircraft. But repeated delays, cost blowouts - with even more expected from the US postponements - have rattled the partners.
The original price tag for each aircraft has already soared from US$69 million ($83.9 million) to US$103 million.
Turkey has halved its original order, Italy will cut its planned fleet of 131 by as many as 40 aircraft, Canada is considering its future in the programme, Britain will not decide how many it will buy until 2015, and reviews are under way in other countries.
Smith said Australia remained committed to the purchase of two F-35s for tests and trials in the US, and had contracted to buy another 12.
He said F-35 production delays and the ageing of the original Hornet fleet - now undergoing a deep maintenance programme - would cause a gap in the RAAF's combat capability.
Problems had arisen because the US was trying to produce the aircraft before development issues had been solved.
"The schedule for that [Australian F-35s] is now under consideration, just as the United States's schedule is under consideration," Smith said.
"What we will not allow is a gap in our capability, and the decision about the gap in capability will be made in the course of this year ..."
But Parliament's joint committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade has been told by the defence think-tank Air Power Australia and threat simulation company RepSim that buying the F-35 was a mistake.
Experts told the committee that the aircraft was a failed programme with no hope of recovery, offering the wrong product based on outdated threat assessments.
They said the F-35 was inferior to Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft, and vulnerable to advanced radar systems and long-range anti-aircraft missiles.By Greg Ansley