Japan has started a study to develop next-generation stealth technology, which if successful could lead to the production of its first indigenous fighter in almost 30 years and give it a long-coveted ability to counter China's growing air power.
The study, however, could also be a way of putting pressure on the USA to release information about the Lockheed Martin F-22. Japan is one of the few countries that can afford the Raptor's $200 million price tag, but US Congress has banned export sales of the aircraft due to its use of secretive equipment.
"We have not decided if we will build a prototype aircraft," says Japan's defence ministry, which confirms that the study started several months ago. "Of course, we are interested in next-generation technology and advanced fighters with stealth capabilities. But we have not decided on how we will get it."
The ministry must formally request funding, possibly for the 2008-9 fiscal year, if it wishes to advance the project, but it would take several years and require significant research and development investment to acquire the technology.
Domestic airframe manufacturers such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries would be involved, although it would be difficult for them to start from scratch without outside help.
"Only American companies like Lockheed or Boeing have access to technology like this, so it would be difficult without them on board," says a Tokyo-based analyst. "Even the Russians have been trying hard for many years without much success. It would be a gargantuan effort for Japan to be successful."
The easier way, say observers, would be for Japan to buy aircraft directly from the USA, and add that the study could be Tokyo's way of putting pressure on its ally to allow access to the Raptor.
Lockheed, which wants to keep its F-22 production line open, is believed to be keen on a sale to Japan, but must first convince Congress. Japan's defence minister earlier this year asked his US counterpart for data on the Raptor, raising the issue from the military to the political level.
"Japan is sending a clear signal - it wants stealth technology and it would prefer to get it from the USA," says another industry observer. "But it is saying that it is prepared to go alone if it needs to."
The source believes that Washington will eventually give Tokyo access to the F-22, although that may not come in time for Japan's McDonnell Douglas F-4 replacement schedule.
Tokyo plans to issue a request for proposals by year-end, with a contract to be awarded by the end of 2008 and the first aircraft to be in service during the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Besides its interest in the F-22, Japan is also evaluating Boeing's F-15 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.