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JAPAN’S FIGHTER JETS PROCUREMENT: A TUSSLE BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY AND DIPLOMACY






Author : Jithin S George 

On September 27, 2011, Japan received bids from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems to replace the outdated F-4fighter jets. Japan is planning to buy 40-50 fighter jets, the deal worth more than $6 billion and by 2016 intends to add the new aircraft in their fleet. For years Japan had plans to buy America’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighter made by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which costs $137-160 million for each plane but after America banned exports of F-22s, even to its closest allies, Japan has had to look for other options.

Currently the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has a fleet of 350 combat aircraft, with 260 fighter aircraft. Furthermore, it has three fighter jet models in its fleets – the F-4EJ ‘Phantom II’ was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) under license in Japan from 1971 (in 1984 F-4EJ’s were upgraded into F-4EJ ‘Kai’). The F-15J ‘Eagles’ have been built under license in Japan by MHI since 1981; its subsequent variants F-15DJ and F-15J ‘Kai’ were also produced by the same company. The Mitsubishi F-2 which entered service in 2005 is a larger and longer variant of F-16 ‘Agile Falcon’. The Japan Ministry of Defense (MoD) was forced to scrap 12 out of 18 damaged F-2s after the March 11 tsunami which hit the JASDF Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi prefecture. The existing fighter jets fleet of F-4EJ ‘Phantom II’ and F-15J ‘Eagles’ are of older generation and need to be replaced.

Apart from domestic obligations, there are pressing external concerns as well. Chinese and Russian aircraft have often been detected flying over Japan’s air space illegally and JASDF has taken immediate action to either warn or intercept them. According to the MoD, intercepts of Chinese planes almost tripled last year, to 96. Russia sent two bombers recently, skirting provocatively around the Japanese archipelago. Seeing the contestation over a few remote islands such as the Kuril Islands (between Japan and Russia) and the Senkaku islands (with China), and rapid modernisation of its neighbour’s fighter aircraft, it has become imminent for Japan to augment its fighter fleet. Russia is also developing a fifth-generation fighter T-50 (PAK FA), while China is developing its own new fifth-generation multi-purpose fighter, the J-20.

The Japanese have plans for a next generation aircraft too. The Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies’ (SJAC’s) has proposed producing a next generation air superiority fighter (F-X) until 2028, and having some of the 100-120 planes replace existing F-15Js as well. That would be followed by a Japanese fighter design, to begin development by 2017 based in part on lessons learned from their ongoing Mitsubishi ATD-X stealth technology demonstrator. Japan hopes to fly Mitsubishi ATD-X in 2014-2016, and the SJAC’s idea was that its successor could enter production around 2028, as the foreign-designed F-X fighter line closed down.

The MoD has identified four selection criteria for the next fighter jets: the performance of the aircraft and its weapons, maintenance costs, level of participation of domestic firms and after-sales support. Regarding performance criteria, the MoD is focusing on stealth, kinematic performance and information-processing capabilities.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant is considered to be the second best after F-22 ‘Raptors’, if stealth is desired. The radar signature of F35 is far ahead than its competitors, because it is designed as stealth from the outset. Lockheed Martin has also offered to exchange the transfer of final assembly of the F-35 fighter to Japanese firms. On the negative side F-35’s are hugely expensive, it is suggested that each jet may cost over $100 million, and it may not be available till 2016.

When it comes to price, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F ‘Super Hornet’ is less expensive with each plane costing $60 million approximately and it is readily available too. F-18’s are also used by Japan’s partner, the US Navy. But its technology is considered to be outdated and earlier in 2011 this was edged out by Indian buyers as well.

The Eurofighter Typhoon, built by an European Union consortium (BAE Systems, EADS and Alenia Aeronautica working through holding company Eurofighter GmBH), provides opportunity both diplomatically and technologically for Japan, UK and rest of Europe to work together. Eurofighter Typhoon is priced between F-18 and F-35; it is a twin engine air superiority aircraft and has very limited ground attack capabilities that would satisfy Japan’s ‘defence only’ criteria. Besides, in an interview with the Financial Times, Japanese Defence Minister, Yasuo Ichikawa said Japan’s alliance with the US would not be a “major criterion” in deciding between the Eurofighter Typhoon and US rivals Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Meanwhile, all three bidders have pledged to allow fighters to be built under license in Japan. The question is how much production they will allow.

In the coming days there will be lot of meetings and deliberations both inside and outside of the Japan’s Ministry of Defence till the final decision is taken by December 2011. It can be speculated that Japan will plump for their traditional partners, the US, but Ichikawa has insisted that the Japanese selection process would be “rigorous and fair”, and waved aside suggestions that spurning the US could cause strains with Washington. Kunihiko Miyake, a security expert at the Canon Global Institute, said that the technical and tactical issues should be given more importance than procurement diplomacy.

India has opted for a technologically better Eurofighter Typhoon along with France’s Dassault Rafale jets over its “natural partner” US’s Boeing’s F/A-18 ‘Super Hornet’ and Lockheed’s F-16 ‘Super Viper’. This didn’t result in a dip in Indo-US relations, except for the fact that the US ambassador, Timothy Roemer, resigned citing prior personal and professional commitments. It remains to be seen what Japan opts for and its possible ramifications. Although JASDF is operating the U-125A built by British Aerospace (BAe 125) as transport aircraft, buying European fighter may have adverse on Japan-US ties. For Japan, due consideration ought to be on its air power requirements and capabilities rather than procurement diplomacy. It has to weigh up its final decision carefully.

(Jithin S George is a Research Associate at the National Maritime Foundation. The author could be contacted at jithinsgeorgein@gmail.com.This article first appeared in the website of Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, India on October 19, 2011)



Figure 1: Armament onboard major Pakistan Navy

ships / planned acquisitions.

Consolidating Aviation Assets

Pakistan has also been displaying considerable interest in building up its Aviation capability. In 2006, Lockheed Martin was contracted to deliver 07 upgraded P3C Orion aircraft - both the Maritime Patrol Version (MPA) and the Air Early Warning Variant (AEW) with the ‘Hawkeye’ System. The first of the upgraded Orions was delivered in 2007 and two more aircraft were received in April 2010. The modification will see obsolete avionics systems currently installed being replaced with modern equipment that provides increased capabilities, reliability and greater sustainability in future operations. It is expected to provide Pakistan with the capability to conduct maritime patrols in both littoral and deep-water environments, thus greatly enhancing the Pakistan Navy’s capabilities. It is also reported that in a $1.3 billion deal signed in August 2010, China will be supplying J-10 fighters to Pakistan. A contract has also been finalised for supply of 250 Chinese JF-17s in the next over the next five to ten years. A Thriving Strategic Partnership with China

Notwithstanding the extensive efforts at overhauling its current fleet, Pakistan’s acquisition of ships, submarines and aircraft appears to fall into a pattern. The new assets are being acquired under the broader justification of being able to effectively face terrorism and piracy challenges posed in the high seas. But perhaps even the PN will be first to acknowledge that it is just politically-correct jargon to justify the shoring up of its capability for use against its neighbour and traditional rival – India.

What is also striking about the PN’s expansion plans is that in recent times more hardware and platforms have been acquired from China that is tipped to overtake the US as Pakistan’s principal defence partner. The Pakistan Navy has in recent times shown indications that it feels more comfortable with its strategic partnership with China. Apart from all the deals for ships, aircraft and submarines discussed earlier, China also helped Pakistan develop a nuclear missile for its short range surface-to-surface Hatf-2 class rocket that was test-fired in March 2011. In November 2010, Islamabad announced that China would be supplying SD-10 homing missiles and radar systems to equip the JF-17 jets - ironically on the same day that the U.S. delivered some 18 F-16 fighter jets.

‘Equivalence’ with the Indian Navy

Pakistan's enterprising efforts in attempting to bolster its naval forces fit into a broad pattern. Every purchase or acquisition is outwardly intended to assist in international maritime efforts towards countering terror, piracy and drug running, but are implicitly aimed at attaining parity and at times superiority over the Indian Navy (IN). All Pakistan Navy’s acquisitions are sought to be explained away by pointing to the rising profile of the Indian Navy - currently employing aircraft carriers, submarines and modern surface combatants. The announcement of PN’s planned acquisitions in the future also point to the fact that there might be a subtle shift in the operating philosophy of the PN from ‘sea denial’ (its professed guiding strategic principle) to building up a ‘stand-alone’ capability aimed at ‘sea control’ and ‘aggressive intrusion’. Acutely aware of the fact that there is only an elementary indigenous naval shipbuilding capacity, the PN is now looking to draft in Chinese support to address the naval capability gap, by acquiring and jointly building submarines and surface platforms.

Meanwhile PN’s has declared its recent joint-Naval exercise ‘Aman-11’ held in early-March 2011 as an unqualified success. There is a sense that the PN believes the success of the exercises may accrued a benefit for it of the same nature (and scale) as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium ensued for India after the first meeting in Mumbai in 2008. Naval ships from 11 countries including Australia, China, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, UK and the USA took part in ‘Aman-11’ that saw the participants evolve common procedures for countering piracy, drug-running and human-trafficking. The exercises are said to have been aimed at improvising maritime tactics and strategy, improving inter-operability, tactical proficiency and developing common tactics against asymmetric air, surface, and mine threats. The fact that navies of 39 countries participated in the joint interaction is a pointer to the ‘respect’ and ‘influence’ the PN is beginning to command around the world.

The implications or PN’s latest acquisitions will not be lost on other regional players and they will be keenly watching how many of Pakistan’s recently announced defence deals and projects finally come to fruition. Many of them will conceivably base future acquisitions for own naval forces on accretions in the Pakistan’s naval force strength. The fact that Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China, has been a key contributor to PN’s inventory will also interest the stake-holders of stability in the Indian Ocean.

(This article first appeared in the Force magazine on June –July 2011edition)

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