Three Contenders Remain For Japan F-X

Sometime this year, a Japanese technician will perform the final piece of
work on the last F-2 fighter to leave the Nagoya works of Mitsubishi Heavy
Industries. With that, Japan’s 45 years of post-war fighter production will
cease and the progressive loss of skills already under way in systems
manufacturing will have spread to every stage of building combat aircraft.

This fact looms large for officials in charge of charting the path for the
next fighter program. The sooner a new fighter goes into production, the sooner
this highly specialized industry can be revitalized.

The defense ministry says three groups have responded to its April 13 request
for proposals (RFP): BAE Systems with Sumitomo Corp., offering the Eurofighter
Typhoon; Lockheed Martin with the F-35; and Boeing with the F/A-18E/F.

The ministry said last year it would also be interested in the Lockheed
Martin F-22, Boeing F-15 and the Dassault Rafale. But the U.S. will not export
the F-22, and the F-15 is out because Boeing believes Japan’s air force is
leaning toward a completely new aircraft type. Dassault Rafale declined to
comment.

The RFP was issued early this year because the ministry and Japan Air
Self-Defense Force (Jasdf) hope to make a recommendation in time for the
procurement to be included the fiscal 2012 budget. To ensure inclusion in 2012,
the contenders have until the end of September to respond. A winner is to be
selected and a recommendation made to the cabinet by the end of December,
leaving three months for parliament to decide.

Japan’s defense guidelines say 40-50 F-X fighters will be ordered, with the
first 12 to be delivered by March 31, 2017. The F/A-18E/F and Eurofighter
Typhoon programs are more mature than the F-35’s, so it is easier for these two
to meet the deadline. The F-35 program has had many delays, but Lockheed Martin
executive vice president and F-35 general manager, Tom Burbage, told Aviation
Week in March that they could deliver as soon as fiscal 2016.

Early delivery is an important factor also because the F-X is needed to
replace the F-4s, all more than 30 years old. Shigeru Iwasaki, Jasdf chief of
air staff, is coy about when the F-4s will go. It depends on the accumulated
flight hours on the airframe, but it may happen within the next 10 years, he
says. If so, Mitsubishi will have to quickly ramp up F-X production. Some
industry executives say the tight deadline for first deliveries and the
ministry’s concerns about cost mean the first batch of F-Xs might be fully
imported.

Japan requires local manufacturing of military aircraft, along with domestic
development of some parts and systems. But licensed production there,
particularly for short production runs, has proven expensive. The country also
tends to change the aircraft design, to the extent that the F-2 was really a new
aircraft following the F-16 configuration. Quite apart from the expense, design
changes take time. Some industry executives say Japan is unlikely to make any
significant changes because these would escalate costs and upset deadlines.

Some relief for Japan’s fighter production base is coming from an unfortunate
circumstance. The ministry believes that 18 F-2Bs that were submerged in the
March 11 tsunami can be salvaged. Work began on April 17. The engines,
electronics and at least some electro-mechanical systems presumably need to be
replaced. The ministry does not yet know how much the repairs will cost.

In the F-X program, the Typhoon and F/A-18E/F will likely cost less than
F-35s, but Lockheed Martin could argue that the F-35 could also satisfy Japan’s
longer-term F-XX requirement to replace the air force’s older F-15s, so
production costs would level out over time.

As the newest aircraft, the F-35 has the advantage of fifth-generation
fighter technology. But it may be hard to persuade the ministry that there will
be no more delays and cost overruns. The defense budget is constrained and
future military spending is likely to decline, say industry executives. The
reconstruction costs in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing
nuclear crisis are further straining the national budget.

Some industry executives are wondering if the FX decision will really be made
this year. It will be a political challenge for the government to allocate money
for new fighters when it is still grappling with national rebuilding costs.
There is also the risk that public dissatisfaction over handling of the
Fukushima nuclear crisis will force out Prime Minister Naoto Kan and, with him,
Defense Minister Toshimi ­Kitazawa. A new defense minister could insist on
reviewing as big a program as the F-X before letting it proceed.

By Leithen Francis, Bradley Perrett
Singapore, Beijing

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