Japan's FX delay threatens gap in fighter production

Tokyo
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Japan has failed to issue a request for proposals for new fighter aircraft, leaving the country's defence manufacturing industry in limbo.

The failure to issue the RFP in April, as had been widely anticipated, has also meant the FX fighter programme is now likely to miss Tokyo's 2011-12 budget and will have to wait another year.

This is because there is too little time left, as budget requests are usually made in August and require both cabinet and parliamentary approval, say industry sources in Japan.

The sources attribute the fresh delay to the country's current political turmoil.

Approval ratings for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama have plummeted and he may be forced to step down over his failure to keep an election promise to relocate a US air base away from a densely populated area of Okinawa island.

Defence minister Toshimi Kitazawa has also been kept busy by the controversy. Upper house elections are scheduled for July, and some political analysts are predicting the government may lose its majority.

The failure to release an RFP for the FX programme means there is no impetus now for the government to act, as the related funding would have to wait until the 2012-13 budget, the industry sources say.

The delay also throws into doubt whether first aircraft deliveries can still take place in the 2014-15 fiscal year, as planned.

 
© US Air Force
The FX programme will replace some of Japan's F-15J fighters

Those who will be responding to the RFP are Boeing, with its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Lockheed Martin, with its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and BAE Systems, which is leading a campaign for the multinational Eurofighter consortium.

Japan wants the FX fighter to have two engines and an active electronically scanned array radar. It will also seek local involvement in some systems, and to have the selected type assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI).

The government has said that the RFP will be for two squadrons - around 40-50 aircraft - to replace part of its air force's fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4s.

The phase-out of some F-4s has already started, so the air force is pushing hard to get new fighters as soon as possible, the industry sources say.

Mitsubishi also wants a decision as soon as possible, because its F-2 production line will close in September 2011. Based on Lockheed's F-16, the licence-built F-2 (below) is the only fighter currently manufactured in Japan. Flightglobal's MiliCAS database says MHI has a backlog of 11 single-seat F-2As, with 52 already in operational use.

 
© Lockheed Martin

It has been more than 50 years since Japan has had a significant lapse in production of fighter aircraft, and the pending gap could lead to some of MHI's local suppliers exiting the defence business, sources warn.

Sumitomo Electric, which manufactures radomes for fighter aircraft, is to leave the defence business - to focus on civil work - once F-2 production ends.