Singapore Air Show

Raptor in the running for Japan’s next fighter

 - November 30, 2006, 9:29 AM

Japan’s Air Self Defence Force (JASDF), which is accustomed to having the most modern variants of U.S. fighter aircraft designs, now appears to be interested in acquiring for its F-X next-generation fighter one of the most expensive ever built: the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor.

In fact, at times the Japanese have had an edge in technological development in the military sector as well as on the commercial side. The JASDF was the first to field an operational active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar on board a fighter aircraft– the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries/Lockheed Martin F-2–and has led the world of military aerospace in the introduction of several new technologies.

So, it would seem to be a reverse of business as usual for the JASDF to be showing interest in acquiring the Raptor. However, it is the timing– usually a major factor in defense procurement–of this acquisition that makes logical sense for Japan’s armed forces and aerospace industrial base.

Last spring the JASDF set up an “F-X preparatory office” to evaluate the options for acquiring new fighters. The mission for these aircraft will be to replace two of the JASDF’s three squadrons of McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ Kai aircraft, all of which are fitted with the Westinghouse APG-66 radar originally developed for the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 15. The third F-4EJ squadron will be replaced by additional F-2s.

Given the age of these F-4s and the timetable set up by Japan’s National Defense Program guidelines, the F-22A is one of the only viable options available. The JASDF wants to have the first seven aircraft of its F-X buy in place by 2009, which means that the service will have to issue a request for proposal to its short list of candidates by April. However, some experienced JASDF observers in Tokyo believe this is an overly optimistic schedule and that the RFP may be delayed until some time in the autumn.

Ordinarily, one would think of the Raptor as a replacement for the JASDF’s Boeing F-15s–as it is being used to replace F-15s in the U.S. Air Force–rather than for the F-4. But the two squadrons that will be replaced by the F-X procurement are interceptor aircraft, which is the F-22A’s primary mission.

JASDF planners intend to make the necessary modifications to convert all the service’s fighters to multirole eventually. However, some of the oldest F-15s in the fleet will be converted to RF-15 reconnaissance platforms and the primary mission of the F-2 will remain air-to-ground and anti-ship operations.

One of the possible other options to fill the Japan F-X requirement is a variant of the F-15K/SG that has been selected by South Korea and Singapore. This would be accompanied by an upgrade retrofit of some of Japan’s existing F-15J models with the Raytheon APG-63(V)3 AESA radar. The Eurofighter and Rafale are other possibilities.

Two squadrons of F-22As would require some 50 or 60 aircraft. If the JASDF continues to retire older aircraft and wishes to remain at a strength level of 12 squadrons, it will still need an additional 50 to 60 aircraft a few years down the line. A decision to purchase the Raptor now could put Japan on the path to some involvement in the development of the F-22A’s baby brother, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which might not be an option if any other platform is selected.

Japan is also probably one of just a few prospective export customers that would look at the F-22A’s hefty price tag and not wince. The cost of the F-2 has been upward of $120 million, which is in the same range as an export version of the Raptor.

Sources in Tokyo have also indicated that Lockheed Martin has discussed an upgrade of the F-2 into a “Super F-2 Kai” configuration to increase compatibility with the F-22As. There is little possibility that the U.S. government would license the F-22A for local assembly in Japan, but the work share to come from a possible future F-35 purchase and/or upgrade of the F-2 would complete the wish list for the Japanese.

What makes the entire situation ironic is that, as Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, an industry research firm, pointed out, a proposal to sell the F-22A to the Japanese in the early 1990s would have been met with howls of hysteria. Back then the F-2 program was supposed to be the vehicle that would allow the Japanese to do to Airbus and Boeing what Nissan, Honda and Toyota had already done to spoil the automotive industry fortunes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

But instead of designing a brand-new aircraft, Japan’s aerospace industry may now be inclined to settle for eventually building pieces of an F-35. This would represent a considerable step down from a full-scale program like the F-2.