JAPAN'S MILITARY is signalling renewed interest in the British Aerospace/McDonnell Douglas Harrier, and hopes to secure funding in the next five-year defence plan for an initial batch of the vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft.

The purchase of between three and five aircraft is understood to have been included in the draft 1996-2000 defence plan, now being drawn up by the Japan Defence Agency.

The Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) and Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) have required a V/STOL capability for a long time, but have failed to win the necessary political support.

This is the first time that acquisition has been included formally in a draft-defence plan.

The aircraft have officially been categorised as trainers, in a move designed to make the programme more politically acceptable. Japanese interest is likely to be focused on initially purchasing a few single-seat Sea Harriers and two-seat T.8s. BAe has accordingly signed an agreement with McDonnell Douglas to act as the local lead contractor.

It is unclear whether the JMSDF or JASDF would operate the aircraft. Some sources suggest that they might be used as trials and research aircraft.

They would almost certainly be land-based as the navy does not possess a suitable operational platform. Construction of a short take-off and vertical landing carrier would have wider political implications for Japan's relations with neighbouring China.

Japanese defence sources suggest that Japan's acquisition of a basic V/STOL capability would help clear the way for the country to be involved eventually with the US Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) programme.

"It would be used to identify themselves as a potential market for the JAST/advanced short take-off vertical landing technology programmes," says one industry observer.

JDA officials, however, caution that the inclusion of a V/STOL aircraft in the draft 1996-2000 plan is only a first step, and the programme could later be axed. The five-year plan is subject to review by the Government's finance ministry and cabinet, before its expected final approval in August.

The draft plan is thought to contain several other large and potentially contentious purchases, including a JASDF request for seven in-flight-refuelling tankers and an interim purchase of between four and six long-range heavy-transport aircraft.

Boeing is hoping to secure a launch order from Japan for its 767 Tanker/Transport Multi-Mission aircraft (Flight International, 22-28 February). It faces competition from the McDonnell Douglas KC-11 and Airbus Industrie A300/310.

McDonnell Douglas is pushing hard to sell its C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft to support Japan's growing number of overseas peace-keeping missions. The JASDF requires a new transportr from 1998 onwards to supplement its fleet of Lockheed C-130Hs. It also has a longer-term requirement to replace its smaller Kawasaki C-1s.

Source: Flight International