Japan confirms delay in fighter competition

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Japan has confirmed a delay to its F-X fighter competition, with a request for proposals to choose a long-awaited replacement for its McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms now expected only in late 2009 or early 2010.

Under the country's ongoing mid-term defence programme, Japan should have gone ahead with the procurement in the fiscal year that begins on 1 April 2009. However, that will not happen as Tokyo is still hoping to get information on its first choice, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, from the USA.

"The MoD [Ministry of Defence] had planned to acquire seven F-X aircraft under the current mid-term defence programme," says the defence ministry. "However, the MoD decided not to start procurement of F-X in FY2009, in consideration of the progress in gathering information on fighters for the F-X selection."

Japan has been lobbying Washington for information on the F-22, saying that it needs the aircraft as a deterrent against a modernising Chinese military and a missile threat from North Korea. But the US Congress has barred the Raptor's export due to concerns about the security of the aircraft's highly sensitive technology.

The defence ministry has not confirmed when it will issue an RFP, but industry sources believe that it will hold off until a new administration is in place in Washington early next year. In the interim, Japan plans to extend the life of the F-4s through more efficient operations and has also requested additional funding to hasten upgrades to its Mitsubishi Heavy Industires/Boeing F-15Js (Flight International, 2-8 September).

"The Japanese will wait until after a new president and Congress have taken office, and spend a bit more money upgrading its F-15s and F-4s, if that increases its chances of getting the F-22. But if a new administration says no as well, it will have no choice but to proceed without the F-22," says one Tokyo-based industry source.

If rebuffed once again, Japan could choose from the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-15E, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35 would be the likeliest candidate as Washington is willing to sell the aircraft, which also has stealth capabilities. Lockheed could also allow Japanese industry to license-produce the fighter, fulfilling one of Japan's requirements.

However, the other JSF partners may object to Japan getting the aircraft before them as the country is not a partner in the programme, and possible delays to the aircraft could also hinder its selection. Industry sources say Tokyo could order one of the other fighters as an interim measure while waiting for the F-35.