Japan is to decide before the end of the year whether to ease military aircraft restrictions. The government will reveal whether it will allow local manufacturers to be involved in international joint development of military aircraft, and permit the export of Japanese military aircraft.

For decades Japan has had an export ban on military equipment, with the policy also blocking its companies from being industrial partners in international defence programmes, such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The major exception to the rule is Japan's export of missile technology to its major ally, the USA.

The office of the prime minister has established a panel of top officials that will release the National Defence Programme Guidelines (NDPG) and the Mid-Term Defence Programme by year-end, say ministry of defence officials.

Japan's policy stance towards military aircraft exports and international joint development of military equipment will be contained in the NDPG, say the officials.

Defence ministry officials and industry sources in Japan say the reason the government is considering easing the restrictions is because local defence manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries have been lobbying it.

Japan needs to change its policy because all the current top programmes are international joint development efforts, says a top executive at one of Japan's major defence manufacturers. The executive cites as examples the F-35 and the Eurofighter programmes.

Unless the government policy is eased, Japan will be unable to gain access to leading technologies, says the executive.

Japan has also developed its own military aircraft such as the Kawasaki XP-1 maritime patrol aircraft and the ShinMaywa search and rescue aircraft.

The policy change could mean that aircraft such as these may be exported in the future, although the general consensus among industry and government sources is the future policy is really about getting Japanese manufacturers involved in international joint development.

The government is becoming open to the idea of joint development because the defence budget is constrained and the current approach - of having licensed production in Japan - is proving to be too costly, the industry and government sources say.

Last year, the government cancelled an order for Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, citing the high cost. The helicopters were to be built under licence by Fuji Heavy Industries, which is now suing the government over the cancelled order.

The move to ease restrictions comes as the defence ministry prepares to release a request for proposals for 40-50 fighters to replace some of its ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4s.

Lockheed plans to put forward its F-35, while BAE Systems is leading the campaign for the multinational Eurofighter consortium.

As for the issue of exporting Japanese military aircraft, officials say the defence ministry established a committee a few weeks ago to look at commercialisation of military aircraft.

Some local manufacturers are already moving in this direction. ShinMaywa, for example, has developed a concept for a civil firefighting variant of its military SAR amphibious aircraft and is actively marketing it.

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Source: Flight International