Japan is apparently proceeding on schedule with the F-X fighter competition, despite the large economic impact of the recent earthquake and tsunami, and a recent government reshuffle. A Ministry of Defense spokeswoman told Bloomberg news agency that a decision is likely by year-end. Requests for proposals were issued to Boeing (for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet), Lockheed Martin (for the F-35) and Eurofighter last April. Formal responses are due at the end of this month.
Most observers believe that Japan favors the F-35 because of its stealth capability. The country’s earlier interest in the F-22 was rebuffed by the U.S., which declared that the Raptor would not be exported.
However, Boeing is pitching the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the most cost-effective choice, which may have relevance in the current economic environment. Most of the enhanced features that Boeing proposed for export aircraft last year should appeal to Japan, including conformal weapons carriage for reduced radar cross-section, and an internal infrared search and track system (IRST).
Eurofighter has stepped up its campaign, despite Japan’s long history of buying only U.S. defense equipment. Dassault cited this reason in its decision not to bid the Rafale to meet the F-X requirement. “We are ready to offer Japan’s defense industry considerable participation in the [Eurofighter] program, which will offer significant technology transfer opportunities, including the source code,” said Chris Boardman, managing director military air and information, BAE Systems.
The F-X is slated to replace Japan’s two remaining F-4EJ Phantom squadrons (a third flies RF-4E/EJs dedicated to reconnaissance). Therefore, only about 40 aircraft are required–a low number that will adversely affect the unit cost of any licensed production. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has other fighter squadrons equipped with seven F-15Js and three F-2s (a unique and enlarged version of the F-16 produced by Mitsubishi). It is funding upgrades to these, and also the development by Mitsubishi of a stealth combat aircraft demonstrator. This is due to fly in 2014, and if successful could preclude the need to buy further examples of the aircraft chosen as the F-X.
The JASDF lost most of its F-2B two-seat conversion aircraft at Matsushima airbase to the tsunami. A decision on whether to extend production of the F-2 to replace them has not yet been announced. In the meantime, the JASDF is sending pilots to the U.S. Air Force F-16 conversion training squadrons.