Recently, the Japanese cabinet, in announcing plans to purchase 28 additional U.S. F-35 fighters (in addition to 42 already contracted), affirmed a policy of maintaining Japanese air superiority over China. The F-35 may indeed contribute to Japanese air superiority in unexpected and to the United States in undesirable ways. I found it interesting that the Abe administration has gone all-in on the F-35, a U.S. “jack of all trades and master of none” fifth generation (stealth) multi-purpose warplane that gets no love from the zoom-and-boom crowd, and has apparently reconciled itself to not buying any F-22 Raptors.
The F-35’s development history (and cost and schedule overrun statistics) makes for sobering reading. The US fleet of 2,400 planes will cost $400 billion to develop and build—and another $1.1 trillion to operate over its projected 50 year life. It remains to be seen if the plane is remembered as a monument of sustained US pre-eminence-or a Great Wall of China-style tombstone for an empire-ending megaboondoggle.
The Raptor, despite its own mind-boggling cost (given the vagaries of military accounting and the small number of planes produced to amortize the program’s fixed costs, all one can say is “north of $300 million per copy”), its horrendous flight availability stats, and some nagging and deadly issues relating to its oxygen system, is still the only genuine, flying 5th generation stealth air superiority fighter, albeit untested in combat. As such, it figures prominently in the manhood-measuring contests contemplated by various governments that face potentially hostile and relatively well-equipped air antagonists at their borders.
Israel has lusted after the F-22 Raptor; so has Japan. And the U.S. Department of Defense brass has yearned to sell the Raptor, in order to further defray its costs and make the plane more affordable for the U.S. military. However, the Obey Amendment, named after a Wisconsin congressman, which forbids export of the Raptor in order to keep its superior technology out of hostile hands, has become a perennial in the Defense Appropriations bill. The civilian defense leadership under DoD Secretary Gates discouraged talk of repealing the Obey Amendment to provide an export tailwind to the program, and consigned the Raptor to niche status in 2009 by capping its build at 187 units.
One of the reasons that Gates asked for the resignation of Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne in 2008 was that Wynne didn’t back off on his insistence that 381 Raptors were needed. And apparently somebody was egging on the Japanese with assurances that the manufacturing procedures for the plane had been exhaustively documented and the tooling and technology carefully preserved, so that the production line could be restarted for a qualified buyer like Japan for the bargain price of somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion dollars.
But with the Raptor option foreclosed, Japan opted for 42 F-35s in 2011. The U.S. Raptor policy, as far as I can tell, has never been authoritatively explained. The most likely reason is that Secretary Gates wanted the US services and foreign buyers to put their oars in the water on behalf of the F-35 and not cling to hope that they would finally get Raptors instead.
The official reason for the export ban is that the US is loath to engage in coproduction with sophisticated potential buyers and thereby risk the leakage of the precious technology to “competitors” like China. This might be a genuine concern with respect to Israel, which has shown a dismaying tendency to pass on US technology to PRC in the course of its arms sales, but it would seem that Japan would be an unlikely practitioner of such monkey business. In fact, Japan might be better at protecting sensitive military technology from the PRC than the United States.
Perhaps the reason for the export ban is the United States wants to maintain a monopoly on the ultimate air superiority fighter. The Raptor gives the U.S. a trump card in East Asia; 12 Raptors rotate in and out of Kadena on Okinawa, giving the US a persuasive security role while denying the need for Japan to operate its own squadron. However, the Fifth Generation Fighter monopoly shows signs of eroding, as China fields two stealth aircraft, including the J-20 stealth fighter, and India proceeds with its pricy joint development agreement with Russia for the Sukhoi T-50.
Japan, as one might expect, has its doubts about matching these sexy air-to-air fighters with the F-35, by comparison the Canyonero of 5th generation warbirds. And, as one might also expect, it has not taken the Raptor export ban laying down. Japan has its own 5th generation fighter program en ovo, the ATD-X, which has been prototyped by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. If the Japanese government pulls the trigger for development and serial production, the plane will be called the F-3. One possible reason to deny the Raptor to Japan is that technology leakage would indeed occur, but toward Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Ishikawa Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electronics instead of China. But Japan can probably get the advanced technology it wants through the F-35 program anyway.
An interesting discussion by an JSDF reservist studying in Australia made the case in 2012:
For Japan, the F-35 delivers more than a fighter capable of facing off head-to-head with the latest Chinese and Russian-made adversaries. It also provides access to stealth and other next-generation (NGEN) capabilities that Japan’s defense contractors need to advance development of their own NGEN fighter. There is little doubt that buying the F-35 will help close the gap between Japan’s R&D program and established NGEN fighter programs abroad. With time, Japan’s skilled workforce and manufacturing capabilities probably are sufficient to overcome the rest.
Actually, make that “no doubt.” Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which has airframe responsibilities for the ATD-X, IHI, and Mitsubishi Electric have been tasked by the Japanese government to locally source 10% of the components in Japan’s F-35:
The very likely inclusion of MHI in the project raises the possibility that the F-35s that Japan will purchase may cost 2 times more than an off-the-shelf unit will. Clearly, considerations relating to the development of Japan’s own military industrial base are driving the policy decisions in this particular case, more than perhaps any appreciated need for a large number of F-35As themselves.
Technological insights gained from the manufacture of components related to low-observability will go into Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s ongoing ATD-X F-3 development (the technology demonstrator scheduled to be tested in 2014), which raises the possibility for an indigenous Japanese fighter to be deployed in the late 2020s to replace the Mitsubishi F-2s and F-15Js. Not only is MHI also in the process of constructing its own technology demonstrator, but IHI reportedly has its own plans to develop a technology-demonstrator engine capable of generating 15 metric tons of thrust – two of which could easily power an airframe worthy of replacing the F-15Js. The linkage between these plans, and the F-35 manufacture, is quite clear. It would also seem to fit broadly within the plans of the MOD, and Japanese defense industry, identified by Bradley Perret at Aviation Week, to lay the groundwork for the acquisition of technologies from domestic and international sources that would be necessary for an indigenous Japanese fighter to be assembled, if necessary.
Perhaps as likely (if not more likely), these technologies, plus the industrial “threat” of Japan developing its own indigenous fighter, could be used as leverage/justification for gaining a greater participating share in any future cross-national development/manufacturing project. Japan’s F-XX fighter procurement will in a few years start to garner greater attention…
I like the quotes around “threat.” It’s interesting to consider if current US strategy considers the “informal” Japanese acquisition of US stealth technology a desirable state of affairs. So, if the F-35 Japan program goes ahead—and there is apparently no serious question that it won’t—and the US does not rethink its Raptor export ban, expect Japan to be ready to enter the 5th generation fighter game with the F-3.
The other interesting consequence of the stealth fighter game calls into question the reassuring idea that Japan will use its mastery of 5th generation technology simply as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the US. In the high end segment of the defense game, economics apparently dictate exports, so that the gigantic costs can be spread over a reasonable number of units, as the United States is trying to do with the F-35 by laying off a few billion dollars in development costs to allies who will presumably have no choice but to double down and purchase a few hundred of the planes.
Japan will face the similar conditions. In order to be a credible player, exports will be central to any indigenous fighter program, as the Japanese analyst remarked:
The reality is that producing competitive NGEN fighters probably requires far more funding than Japanese policymakers forecast. As a result, Japan will need to mirror the approaches used by other NGEN producers, including offsetting development costs with foreign exports. This is the only realistic business model which proves politically and economically viable for building a true NGEN fighter. Since Japan’s current laws prohibit the export of such a fighter, Tokyo therefore needs to relax or rewrite its export control restrictions. Japan’s recent moves in this direction increase the likelihood that the domestic legal barriers to exports will eventually disappear.
And that in turn means that restrictions limiting co-development will probably be honored “in the breach” more and more; indeed, the economic demands of Japanese defense “reconstruction” will probably dictate that the limits on plain-vanilla arms sales be jettisoned as well.
As Jon Day wrote for Xinhua on Dec. 11, 2013:
At the defense and security meeting, the government also traversed the thorny issue of lifting its long-standing weapons export ban, with Shinichi Kitaoka, head of the government panel launched by Abe, stating that the ban should be lifted. Kitaoka is a former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations and has, of late, served as a key adviser to Abe and is a proponent of reinterpreting Japan’s war-renouncing, pacifist Constitution to lift the self-imposed ban on the right to exercise collective self-defense, and as the deputy chairman of Abe’s Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, also wishes to see the embargo on weapons exports lifted.
Believe it or not, the export limitations are already dead as a doornail for F-35 components; Prime Minister Abe is already pitching Japanese sourcing for F-35 parts to NATO.
As Asahi reported in March, here is the requisite loophole:
The Abe administration never doubted that the parts for the F-35 would be excluded from the weapons export ban. In compiling the new statement explaining the exception, the administration came up with a new basic concept of “complying with the United Nations Charter.” The export of Japanese-made parts will be allowed only to those nations that abide by the objectives and principles of the UN Charter.
If the international environment is favorable-i.e. places like Indonesia and Malaysia are interested in a Japanese fighter with no strings attached (and amazingly, Taiwan is also a potential buyer for an indigenous Japanese fighter), the Japanese government might decide to go ahead with the program. So US military planners are presented with an interesting dilemma. The United States has no defensible reason to deny Japan co-production on the F-35.
Which means that in a few years the US will probably be faced with a situation in which Japan 1) has developed a viable alternative to the Raptor and 2) has established itself as an unrestricted exporter of military goods and 3) has a vested economic and strategic interest in exporting the plane in competition with the United States, and at the expense of reduced US military and strategic predominance…
…unless the US reverses policy and decides to sell Japan the Raptor…
…and Japan still wants it.