Japan rethinks helicopter needs

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Army considers fleet realignment and multi-year rotorcraft acquisitions to cope with budget constraints

Japan's army is re-evaluating its planned helicopter procurements, in the light of budget constraints and potential changes to its acquisition procedures.

Industry sources say the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF) is conducting a study that could result in a fleet realignment and the cancellation of at least one of its programmes. Japan is also studying possible multi-year helicopter purchases, which would require a revision to its single-year acquisition regulations.

The JGSDF is purchasing five helicopter types - the Fuji/Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Fuji/Bell UH-1J, Kawasaki OH-1, Kawasaki/ Boeing CH-47J Chinook and the Mitsubishi/Sikorsky UH-60JA. However, the service's limited aviation budget, which has shrunk to about $300-400 million annually, has prevented it from acquiring any of these in the quantities required. The service will, for example, acquire just two Apaches, two UH-1Js, two OH-1s, two CH-47Js and one UH-60JA in fiscal year 2004.

The JGSDF plans to take delivery of 55 Apaches from 2006, but will take nearly three decades to replace its Fuji/Bell AH-1 Cobras at its current acquisition rate. Given the more than 100 Kawasaki/Hughes OH-6s that still need to be replaced, the OH-1 purchase will take even longer to complete.

As a result, the army is looking at several alternatives to enable it to acquire more aircraft using its limited budget. One option under review is to eliminate the UH-1J or UH-60JA and acquire just one helicopter type for the utility mission. Another is to eliminate the OH-1 or Apache and acquire a single type for the scout and attack missions.

Kawasaki is offering to develop an armed variant of the OH-1 with a new powerplant, but Boeing claims the indigenous design cannot fulfill the attack requirement, while noting that the Apache can meet the reconnaissance role. "Clearly there would be savings from a multi-year [Apache] buy," says a Boeing official. "We're talking to them about a better way to acquire the aircraft."

All interested manufacturers say it could take several years for the government to approve revisions to the acquisition rules. Changes are under study because the defence environment has changed. Iraq gave the nation its first combat deployment in decades and new threats have prompted the purchase of a ballistic missile defence system.

The Japanese Defence Agency is looking at dropping the self-defence tag from all military services and accelerating its next five-year spending plan. The current model runs until March 2006, but the agency is looking at ending it in March 2005 and launching a framework that would take into account new acquisition priorities from April 2005.