TOKYO - The Japanese government's sudden decision to delay the announcement of a winner in its multibillion-dollar fighter program is widely regarded as a sign that Lockheed Martin's F-35 has emerged as a late frontrunner despite concerns over cost and local workshare, according to government and industry sources.
F-35 JOINT STRIKE Fighters sit on the tarmac at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., earlier this year. Japan is scheduled to make a decision Dec. 20 on the winner of its F-X fighter competition, and some say the F-35 is the favorite. (U.S. Air Force)
Japan's National Security Council was slated to announce Dec. 16 whether the F-35, Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet or the Eurofighter Typhoon will replace about 40 Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms starting in early 2017 under a contract valued at about $8 billion. The announcement has been moved to Tuesday, Dec. 20.
When the F-X competition began, the aim was to buy 48 air superiority fighters with little development cost and a large share of work for Japanese industry. The F-35 was considered a long shot because development was slipping, unit costs growing, and workshare prospects were more limited.
But Tokyo began to look more favorably on the plane after Japan was denied Lockheed's stealthy F-22 and concerns about China's military escalated.
Early last week, Japan's defense establishment was thrown into a furor following local media reports that the F-35 was the likely winner.
Senior government officials denied that any decision had been made.
But one source said the Joint Strike Fighter had long ago moved to the front of the pack because government officials decided that they wanted stealth, as much high technology as possible and a good relationship with the United States.
"The Japanese always wanted the JSF," said one source. "So they ended up with the result they wanted, and now the question is whether they can sustain it."
Picking the F-35 would invite criticism from the opposition and media of the plane's cost, schedule delays and a recent spate of reports that focused on shortcomings highlighted during development.
Critics may also charge that the competition has been less transparent than claimed, although executives of the three main contenders have said the MoD has been painstakingly careful to make the contest as fair and open as possible.
The stakes in the F-X competition go beyond replacing the F-4s; the winner is likely also to get the bigger prize of replacing more than 100 F-15Js within the next 10 years.
Shinichi Kiyotani, a military analyst and journalist, said the sudden delay in the announcement points to divisions within the MoD and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) cabinet.
"There are internal discussions within the MoD; some bureaus are sold on it [the F-35], others aren't," Kiyotani said. "There is division at the top of the MoD, and there are still internal discussions within the DPJ Cabinet. There are so many problems with the F-35, it's seen as a huge risk."
Among other concerns, there's the question of whether the F-35 will offer enough local workshare to support Japan's ailing aerospace sector. The country's only active fighter-jet assembly line is slated to shut down after rolling out just six more Mitsubishi F-2s, a derivative of the F-16.
That consideration was seen as giving the edge to Eurofighter, which vowed to give Japanese industry as much as 95 percent of the work, or to Boeing, which said that more than 80 percent would be available. Lockheed offered less, but argued that access to next-generation production capabilities and coveted stealth technology outweighed financial value.
Kiyotani also noted concerns about the recent news of a slowdown in production of the F-35 caused by some lingering technical problems and the potential that U.S. politics and budget cuts could shrink the Pentagon's own purchase.
"The F-35 is already seen as very expensive. If the number of units is only a few a year, then that will push up costs," he said. "Nobody believes the Lockheed Martin story of an eventual $65 million or so a plane."
Alessio Patalano, a Japan military expert at King's College in London, agreed on the risks involved.
"Of these three options, the F-35 is on paper the one with superior performance characteristics, but it is an operationally untested aircraft, widely reported to run into constant escalating costs and with serious issues in relation to delivery timetables," Patalano said. "More importantly, there is no way to know at the moment if its ... superior stealth capabilities will make a difference in real-time missions: By the time it will enter into service, technology will have provided new ways to reduce the impact of this feature. Second, there is little guarantee as to whether once it is fully armed, this configuration will not have an impact on its stealth capabilities."
A senior Japanese industry source speaking on condition of anonymity also said industry doesn't yet fully buy into the F-35's value proposition.
"We have not yet got concrete information of how we will be involved," the executive said. "It is said that Japanese industry will assemble substantial portions of the F-35, according to the media, but we aren't sure exactly what systems and components Lockheed Martin will be allowed to permit industry to produce in the future.
"I am afraid that delays will happen that will increase costs next year or a few years later. Some feel that it is better that we avoid such a situation. Others want to us to pursue the newest fighter like some kind of super car," he said. "If Japan doesn't get the final version of the F-35 until a decade later, we may really need a different fighter. If there are delays, then the government may well have to put up with purchasing lower numbers."
Jun Okumura, a counselor for Eurasia Group, said the Japanese government will likely opt for the F-35 based on political reasons.
"The administration [of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda] places great value on the bilateral alliance, particularly at a time when a rising China is making waves in Japan's near abroad and beyond - including hints of its own Gen-5 program - and the U.S. has decided to reupholster its engagement in the Asia-Pacific," he said. "All that the government sources are willing to say now is that nothing has been decided yet. Assuming that it is indeed the F-35, though, it means that MoD could have, but did not, go for an interim, Gen-4+ solution while waiting for the questions around the F-35, including timing, to clear up."