TOKYO - Japan on Dec. 20 chose the U.S.-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth jet for its next-generation mainstay fighter, as North Korea provided a timely reminder of the region's potential for instability.
U.S. AIR FORCE F-35A Joint Strike Fighters are shown in the skies over Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in July. Japan announced Dec. 20 that it would buy the F-35A variant to replace its F-4 fleet. (Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago / U.S. Air Force)
In a deal estimated to be worth more than $4 billion, Japan went for the trouble-plagued jet to replace its aging fleet of F-4 fighters.
"The government shall acquire 42 units of F-35A after fiscal 2012 in order to replenish and to modernize the current fleet of fighters held by the Air Self-Defense Force," the cabinet said in a statement.
Lockheed Martin's F-35 beat off competition from two other jets: the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The government said Japanese companies would take part in building the new fighters.
The formal decision, which had long been expected, came the day after news of the death of Kim Jong Il sent jitters through the region amid fears a power transition could destabilize North Korea's hard=line regime.
Tokyo was originally expected to announce its pick last week. The selection comes as China's massive military machine continues to grow and Beijing becomes increasingly assertive.
The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history and has been plagued by cost overruns and technical delays.
Co-developed with British defense giant BAE Systems, the F-35 was the costliest of the three models under consideration, with a price tag estimated at $113 million per aircraft.
Japan initially aimed to acquire the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter to renew its fleet, but U.S. law prohibits exports of the jet and the United States has halted production of the model.
Japan, which places its security alliance with the United States at the cornerstone of its foreign policy, has long depended on U.S. manufacturers for its military hardware.