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Sayonara For F-22A Raptor?

3:07 PM, Oct 23, 2007 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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f22_j.jpgLooking les and less likely.

According to a weekend report from Reuters news agency, one of Washington's closest Asian allies may be ending a several decades-long practice of purchasing its advanced weaponry from the United States. On Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba gave an interview which seemed to indicate that the country's air force was saying "sayonara" to their earlier expressed wishes to purchase an export version of the Lockheed Martin (LM) F-22A Raptor.

Japanese military officials have been discussing a possible F-22A purchase with the United States for more than two years, and several of the aircraft have made visits to Japanese air bases, but Congressional and other opposition to selling the U.S. Air Force's top-of-the-line stealthy fighter appears to still be enough to block the sale. Despite the fact that Japan is perhaps the number one security partner of the United States in the region, there is still a mindset within the U.S. Government that is hesitant to export the new-age technologies that are the basis for the Raptor's performance and combat effectiveness.

This past August the House Appropriations Committee passed legislation banning the export of the F-22A to any foreign government. DoD officials in Washington said this would derail plans by Israel and Japan to obtain the advanced fighter sometime during the next three years, Middle East Newsline reported.

Conventional wisdom has been that the Japanese would try to outwait this resistance and just postpone their procurement for another year, but the problem facing Japan's Air Self-Defence Force (JSDAF) is that time is not on their side. The JSDAF are still operating a number of the aging McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantoms that need to be retired and replaced with a later-model platform. Some of the F-4s have been in service in Japan for nearly 35 years.

If the past week's statements are to be believed, the need to buy something now appears to be winning out over Tokyo's desire to continue to "buy American."

"The F-22 is an exceptional aircraft," Ishiba was quoted as saying. "But we at the Defence Ministry have not decided that it is absolutely necessary for Japan." Ishiba went on to say that of the several other competitors to replace the F-4s the most likely choice was the four-nation consortium Eurofighter. Eurofighter's major industrial participants are BAE Systems in the UK, EADS in Germany and Spain, and Alenia Aeronautica/Finemeccanica in Italy.

Other competitors in the race have been ruled out for other reasons. "The French [Dassault] Rafale is difficult to use. We certainly wouldn't choose a Russian fighter plane. So I think it would be the Eurofighter Typhoon," he said.

Observers of the F-22A program in the United States are puzzled as to why the U.S. Government continues to hold back from selling the Raptor. They point out that the other major LM program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), utilizes many of the same technologies as the F-22A and will likely be sold to more than a dozen nations.

"The major new technologies that make the F-22A the next generation in fighter aircraft are also the building blocks of the F-35," said a Washington, D.C.-based expert on combat aircraft and stealth technology. "The low observable materials, the active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar, new avionics--these and more are part of the F-35's design. The USAF also need an export sale to bump up the total numbers of F-22As to be produced. It is the only way to put any economies of scale into this program."

The obvious answer to this dilemma would seem to be for Japan to join the F-35 program along with all of the other partner nations, which include Tokyo's Asian neighbor Australia. But, because of the age of the F-4s in the JSDAF, they cannot wait until 2015 or later, which is the most likely delivery date for an export sale to Japan.

The JSDAF are planning a major modernization of their F-15 fleet, including the retrofit of these aircraft with an AESA radar. Another option is to supplement this force with additional, new F-15s and then re-visit the F-22A issue at the end of this decade. This, according to analysts familiar with the Japanese armed forces, would be cheaper than trying to add a new, non-U.S. airplane to the JSDAF.

Another possibility is that Japan might decide to build a stealth fighter of its own design. During the summer Japanese officials had talked about going their own way and developing a new, indigenous fighter to be test flown within five years. However, as with the Japanese F-2 program, which was developed in conjunction with Lockheed Martin and closely resembles the American F-16, such an effort would undoubtedly require U.S. participation.