TAIPEI, WASHINGTON and TOKYO - The F-35 could see its wings emblazoned with the red sun roundel, if Japanese media reports are correct.
The Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has been in competition with the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon for the Japanese F-X program for several years. The F-X will replace Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms, due to begin retirement in 2015.
Japan plans to purchase between 40 and 50 fighters for roughly $10 billion. Tokyo is also considering replacing F-15Js within the next 10 years, increasing the number of F-X fighters to 150.
However, both the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the U.S. Pentagon's Joint Program Office are denying any final decision has been made. Boeing discounted the reports, holding out hope the Japanese government will continue to work with the company, as it has with the F-15J.
"We've seen the speculation on the JSF winning but won't comment on that aspect," said Lorenzo Cortes, international communications, Boeing Defense, Space & Security. "The Japanese government could best respond to what's going on. We are expecting a formal announcement as early as this week, but ultimately, it's Japan's discretion as to when they want to do that."
The MoD has repeatedly said they "were unable to confirm neither decision in favor of the F-35 nor the public release of the announcement for Dec. 16," an MoD spokesman said. "Nothing has been decided on the selection, and we can't confirm when the decision will be announced."
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va., said that if true, Japan's selection of the F-35 is a "very strong endorsement from a respected service." The F-35 has been under attack in the U.S. Congress and media due to a variety of production and program problems.
"Despite all the doubts, they still see the F-35s capabilities and technology as the future," he said. "It's the first new customer outside the original partner nations."
Despite the Japanese endorsement for the F-35, there will be challenges finding a role for Japan's indigenous aviation industry, which is facing layoffs and reduced production with the end of the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter, the country's only active fighter line, scheduled to close soon.
"No licensed production will be tantamount to disaster," a Japanese defense industry source said. "We have excellent engineers, and a generation of skills will be lost."
A U.S. defense industry source in Tokyo said the F-35 program is a "complex multinational program that will take some negotiation to carve out a Japanese aviation industry role."
Part of the problem is the limited number of F-X fighters, 40 to 50, which "means investment would be quite high, so question is, does this position the F-35 to fulfill the F-XX/F-15J replacement program?"