What Japan’s F-35 Decision Means—And Doesn’t Mean

By Philippe Lagassé and Srdjan Vucetic

The F-35 program has received mostly bad press for months—until the government of Japan made a formal announcement on December 19 that it had selected Lockheed Martin’s stealth design as the winner of a new fighter jet competition process. In the mid-2000’s, six aircraft were being mentioned as candidates: the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the latest versions of the F-18 and the F-15, both offered by Boeing, as well as Lockheed Martin’s flagship duo, the F-22 and the F-35. By April2011, the number was down to three: the Typhoon, the F-18 E/F, and the most conventional version of the F-35. According to the Japanese government officials, the F-35 was selected on the basis of its performance, not affordability or even availability. Indeed, the delivery deadline for 40-50 new jets, set for the end of fiscal 2016, is regarded as optimistic in the Japanese media, and appears at odds with American reports of delayed production schedules.

In Ottawa, Japan’s F-35 decision was cheered by Julian Fantino, Associate Minister of National Defence: “Today’s announcement by Japan once again demonstrates that the F-35 is the best aircraft available to replace our aging fleets and address future threats to our sovereignty.” In contrast to Canada, however, Japan’s F-35 decision followed a fairly open process: the air force issued a request for bids, collected them, and studied them for months. Then the chief of staff recommended the selection of the F-35 to the defence minister, who then transferred the file to the national security council and the cabinet. Now that the choice was made, the Japanese Diet will be debate whether or not the fiscal 2012 budget ought to include a contract for the first batch of four F-35s. Like Canada, Japan is expected to wait until production of the aircraft accelerates and significant economies of scale reduce the per-unit cost of the plane before the purchase contract for all 40-50 planes is signed. Until this happens, Japan’s decision will not be definitive; some degree of doubt, no matter how small, will continue to surround the procurement, particularly if the F-35 program experiences further delays and cost adjustments.

Japan’s unique approach to defence is reflected in the discourse surrounding this decision. According to the industry newsmedia, Japan’s F-35 contract will include a deal for a domestic manufacture of key components and subcomponents, maintenance work, as well as engine assembly, a choice that will undoubtedly inflate the already considerable cost of the aircraft. Since the rearmament of the country in 1950’s, most Japanese governments have pursued a policy of indigenous arms production known as “kokusanka.” The expressed rationale was self-reliance, but in practice kokusanka usually came down to the licensed production of U.S.-made weapon systems, on top of the original development of some smaller parts and systems. Accordingly, when Tokyo purchased its first fleet of U.S.-made fighters in 1955, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki also acquired licenses to produce additional planes for the use by the Japan’s Air Self-Defence Forces (ASDF). The aircraft that the F-35 will be replacing in the ASDF, the F-4EJ, was a license-produced version of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (which the U.S. military retired back in 1996).

Economically, kokusanka-driven defence production was always a bad deal on its own terms, but what made it even worse was postwar Japan’s self-imposed prohibition of arms exports. By law, no license-produced weapon system could ever be sold outside the country. With the growing constraints on national budgets, Tokyo has been considering two new policy directions: a move toward off-the-shelf imports and away from co-production deals, and the lifting of the arms export ban. The F-35 procurement process is likely to be closely implicated in both of these debates.

Beyond what it means for defence industry, Japan’s F-35 decision has major geopolitical significance. For one, it is very good news for the United States-Japanese alliance. Had Tokyo chosen the Eurofighter Typhoon, an out-and-out licensed production could have been an option once again, but this choice might have been perceived not only as a move toward greater independence in Japanese security policy, but also as the waning of American power in East Asia. From a military-operational perspective, in fact, Japan’s selection of the F-35 arguably ensures that American fifth generation aircraft will be able to interoperate more effectively with ASDF to defend Japan in the event of a major military confrontation in Asia. Indeed, the F-35 will not provide Japan with a means to effectively defend its airspace against its larger, militarily stronger neighbours, China and Russia, both of which are developing their own next generation fighters. Japan’s F-35s, then, will complement American fighters deployed to defend the islands in the unlikely event of a conventional war in the region.

Finally, it is worth pondering what impact Japan’s procurement of the F-35 will have on the slated Canadian acquisition of this same aircraft. As Fantino’s rather swift new release shows, the announcement that any country is planning to purchase the plane will doubtless boost the spirits of the program’s defenders in Canada. Japan, after all, is no small power and the number of airframes, engines, and other parts the ASDF is planning to acquire is by no means negligible. Japan’s decision may also provide the Conservative government with a handy talking point the next time opposition MPs point to gloomy news about the F-35 that continues to make headlines. In the end, though, the fate of the program, and Canada’s procurement of the F-35, is far more dependent on what develops in the United States than with any other potential buyers. It is the number of aircraft that the American government ultimately buys that will have the greatest impact on the per-unit cost, and likely industrial benefits, of thenext generation fighter. While Japan’s announcement is a promising sign, the fate of the F-35, and Canada’s commitment to it, lies elsewhere.

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