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Japan has chosen the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II to meet its F-X requirement. The losing contenders were the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Japanese Defence Ministry said that, while all three contenders met the essential requirements, the F-35 scored highest after points were awarded for performance, cost, logistics support and domestic industrial participation. Japanese newspapers quoted defense officials saying that the aircraft’s stealth and networking capabilities were key deciding factors.
LM said Japan would buy its first four F-35s next year, but also confirmed that they would be included in low rate initial production (LRIP) lot eight, which will not be finalized until 2014. Japan is expecting to pay $127 million for each of these four aircraft, including initial support. They will be assembled and flown in the U.S., and delivered in 2016 with the operational Block 3 software. Subsequent aircraft for Japan will be assembled there by Mitsubishi, and the engines by IHI. Mitsubishi will also produce the wings. Establishing a local production line will be expensive, but Japan has not previously balked at such costs–the F-15s and F-2s (modified F-16s) that were assembled in Japan have cost much more than buying completed aircraft from the U.S. Such an investment could better be justified by a long production run. It may, therefore, be that Japan eventually will buy more F-35s than the initial requirement for 42 to replace some F-15s as well as the F-4s that are the immediate priority for replacement.
LM officials have promised that Japanese industry could become a supplier to the international F-35 program. But this would require the lifting of Japan’s current ban on the export of military equipment. The ban is being reviewed.
The Japanese commitment will help offset likely reductions in U.S. orders for the F-35 over the next few years. Early next year, the Pentagon must react to budgetary pressures as well as a recent official review that again expressed serious concern over the concurrency between F-35 development and production. In the last published plan, the U.S. was scheduled to buy 449 aircraft in LRIP lots six through 10, before the aircraft is declared operational in 2016.