At the recent Paris Air Show I tagged along to a presentation by
Boeing about Japan's
F-X requirement for 40-50 fighters to replace Japan Air Self Defense Force
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms. The briefing provided an opportunity to ask a
question that has nagged me for sometime: why did Boeing offer the F/A-18 E/F
Super Hornet as opposed to the more capable and stealthier F-15 Silent Eagle?
Boeing told me that Japan simply did not want too many
aircraft of the same type. JASDF already operates a large force of F-15Js, so
any major problem with F-15s in general could paralyse its air defences. Boeing
also told me that Japan
seemed mainly interested in the air-to-air mission, and that stealth was one of
the factors listed in April's F-X RFP.
Many observers seem to assume that the winner of the F-X
requirement has a good chance of winning the F-XX competition to replace Japan's over
200 F-15Js. But if Tokyo
is uncomfortable having too many aircraft of a single type, then it seems
likely that the F-X and F-XX will be two different aircraft.
The contenders for F-X are the Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin
F-35 Lightning II, and Eurofighter Typhoon. Of this trio only the F-35 has the
stealth capabilities that Japan
has long coveted. On the other hand the programme is much delayed, further
delays cannot be ruled out, the F-35 will not be as affordable as planned, and
Japanese export laws mean Tokyo
would not benefit fully from partnering in the programme. This at a time when Japan's economy
is moribund, and likely to stay that way owing to unfavourable demographics.
What this means is that the F-35, despite its stealthiness,
could be a relatively unattractive option for the near term F-X competition. It
is probably too expensive and unlikely to be available by the 2016 delivery
timeframe specified by the RFP. And if there are more major delays in the
F-35's development, then the JASDF could be stuck with its obsolete Phantoms
until the 2020s.
The cheapest, fastest option for F-X is therefore probably
the Super Hornet. The aircraft has been produced for years, the US navy is
buying more, and there is great scope for industrial participation. In short it
is a known quantity that can tide the JASDF and Japan industry over until the
nation can deploy a true stealth platform in the shape of the F-XX.
As for F-XX,
re-visit the F-35. By the middle of this decade a clearer picture will have
emerged about the costs of maintaining and operating the aircraft. And, with
luck, the economies of scale so heavily touted at the programme's inception may
have started to emerge.
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