Mitsubishi to lead Japanese F-15 upgrades

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Upgrades to Japan's Boeing F-15J fleet will likely be led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, with the company expecting a contract for the project in the first quarter of 2008.

Funding is likely to be approved in the coming fiscal year, with the defence ministry seeking a ¥112 billion ($1 billion) budget for the programme. MHI is likely to upgrade 32 of the air force's 200 F-15s in the first project phase.

© US Air Force

The programme has an added urgency as Tokyo is delaying plans to procure a new batch of fighters to replace its ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4s. It has asked for information on the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing F-15 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, and the Eurofighter Typhoon. However, the USA is refusing to release information on the stealthy F-22, the aircraft that Japan covets the most, forcing the programme into limbo.

The stand-off has resulted in Japan starting 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-desired ability to counter China's growing air power. Observers believe the study could also be an attempt to force the USA to release information on the F-22, especially since an indigenous programme would cost several times more than an outright purchase.

Upgrades to Japan's F-15s and possibly even some of its F-4s could be given priority in the coming years, although the latter have not been included in the fiscal year 2008 budget.

Boeing has been talking to overseas operators of the F-15 about radar upgrades, after receiving a $70 million contract to retrofit US Air Force and Air National Guard F-15Cs with Raytheon's APG-63(V)3 active electronically scanned array radar.

The USA is also looking to upgrade its F-15Es with AESA radars, with the APG-63(V)4 competing against a derivative of Northrop Grumman's APG-81 developed for the JSF. Such systems would give the F-15 enhanced capabilities such as those sought by Japan to counter possible threats from China and North Korea.