Japan seeks to replace Phantoms

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F-X programme launched to acquire at least 40 new interceptors as retirement of venerable F-4 approaches

Japan has formally launched an F-X replacement programme for its Mitsubishi/McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms, with the first seven of at least 40 new interceptors set to be acquired in fiscal years 2008 or 2009.

Japan's air force has established a small project team to draft a requirement and prepare for a competition that will culminate in the selection of a fifth-generation fighter within two to three years, according to Japan Defence Agency (JDA) planning and programming division director Kenichi Takahashi.

Boeing's F-15 and F/A-18, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F/A-22 Raptor are expected to contest the F-X requirement. Takahashi says Japan has been in contact with the US government over the potential export of the F/A-22 but that its consideration depends on future negotiations. The JSF "is an option for F-X, even if it is not available until 2012-13", he says.

The F-15 or F/A-18 could more easily be assembled in Japan, but the JDA has not yet decided whether to pursue license production or to directly import the selected fighter. "The assembly line is one of the concerns, but it's not a vital issue," Takahashi says. "Our concern is total cost, including the maintenance fee."

Tokyo has earmarked the purchase of seven fighters in its new five-year defence spending plan, which runs through March 2010. It plans to begin F-X acquisition in the fourth or fifth year of this process, requiring a selection in mid-2007 or mid-2008.

The new fifth-generation fighters will replace two squadrons of F-4 interceptors from around 2011-12, with a further unit of F-4 support fighters to be replaced by the Mitsubishi/Lockheed F-2 fighter. Takahashi says that while the F-2 has succeeded as a support fighter, it was not designed for the interceptor role and that Japan "needs a fighter more capable than the F-2. Our requirement for the F-X will be a fighter capable as both an interceptor and support fighter."

However, Mitsubishi and Lockheed last year began marketing an enhanced F-2 Super Kai concept – similar to the US company's F-16 Block 50/52 – to meet the F-X requirement, in a bid to ensure the type's continued production (Flight International, 19-25 October 2004). However, Takahashi says the JDA has yet to receive a briefing on the proposed F-2 development from its industry backers.

BRENDAN SOBIE/TOKYO