The Eurofighter Typhoon is becoming a serious contender in Japan's forthcoming F-X fighter competition, with industry sources saying that Tokyo is taking the European fighter more seriously in the much-anticipated tender.
"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said that the Typhoon did not have a chance due to the close US-Japan ties. I am no longer sure of that," says a Tokyo-based industry source close to the Japanese defence ministry. "Washington's continued refusal to release information on the [Lockheed Martin] F-22 has strained bilateral defence ties, and Japanese politicians and bureaucrats are eyeing the Typhoon as a viable alternative to the other American fighters that are on offer."
Under its F-X competition, Japan is seeking around 50 aircraft to replace its ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4s. It has delayed issuing a request for proposals for the past two years while unsuccessfully lobbying the US Congress to overturn the Obey Amendment, which prohibits the sale of the F-22 to any foreign government due to its high level of sensitive technology.
Sources say that Tokyo will push one more time next year, after the US presidential and Congressional elections and Japan's own general elections. If it fails again, it will turn its attention to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Delays in the JSF's delivery schedule, however, could result in Japan following Australia's lead and ordering an interim batch of fighters to prevent a drop in its air capability.
In that situation, Tokyo will likely choose between the Typhoon and Boeing's F/A-18E/F and F-15E. Australia's order for the F/A-18E/F has given the type a boost, while the fact that Japan is the largest operator of the F-15C outside the USA could give that fighter's successor an advantage.
Eurofighter, however, argues that the Typhoon has the most modern platform of the three and stresses its willingness to share much of the fighter's technology with Japanese industry, a fact that will remind Tokyo of the USA's rebuff over the F-22 every time that they bring it up. With orders for the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-2, a Japanese version of the Lockheed Martin F-16, ending, MHI will also welcome the opportunity to continue with its licence-production business.
Given that Japan is likely to operate alongside the US military in any conflict, some observers argue that it makes more sense for the country to go with the US defence contractors. However, sources close to Eurofighter point out that the UK and Italy - both also allies of the USA - will operate a combination of F-35s and Typhoons in the future as well.
"Japan's existing F-4s and F-15s are cannot be used for much longer, even with upgrades, while the F-2 is an old platform. The UK and Italy are evidence that the USA could operate with the Typhoon in the mix. In fact, a combination of the F-35 and Typhoon could result in Japan having the most modern fleet possible," says a second source.