Japan's selection of the U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jet was hardly a surprise in light of the importance placed on the Japan-U.S. security alliance by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
However, a delay in the development of the F-35, a few technical glitches and the Defense Ministry's decision not to release the results of its evaluation of the three candidate jets, among others, has raised doubts about the soundness of the decision.
The government announced Dec. 20 that it has decided to purchase the F-35 as the country's next-generation fighter jet to replace its aging fleet of F-4 Phantom jets.
Japan is expected to spend some 1.6 trillion yen ($20.51 billion) on the purchase of the next-generation fighter jets, also known as the FX, for the Air Self-Defense Force.
From the outset, the F-35 was widely seen as the favorite due to its advanced stealth capabilities, on paper, at least. The two other candidates were Boeing's F/A-18 and the Eurofighter from Britain's BAE Systems and others.
The ministry said it selected the F-35 after evaluating the performance, price, percentage of the aircraft that can be built in Japan and rear-echelon support of each candidate.
Of these factors, performance was the most important consideration in the selection process, with 50 points assigned from a total of 100. The ASDF, meanwhile, insisted on buying the F-35 because of its stealth capabilities.
"Competition among neighboring countries to establish air supremacy is getting fiercer," said a source in the ASDF.
While the Chinese air force has succeeded in test flying stealth fighters, called the Jian-20, the Russian military was also trying to deploy its stealth jets, the T-50.
There have been reports that the South Korean air force may also start talks to procure the F-35 next year.
Noda was under pressure from the United States to pick a U.S. aircraft. A senior official in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly relayed the request.
Many Japanese government officials shared the concern that Japan's choice could affect the Japan-U.S. alliance, according to a senior official at the ministry. In October, a ranking Japanese government official acknowledged that Japan would likely choose a U.S. fighter.
Although Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa promised to "select fairly and strictly (on merit)," Japan ranking the F-35's performance at the top has raised some questions about the selection process.
The ministry declined to release results of the evaluations of the three candidate aircraft, citing possible implications on the manufacturers' sales.
Representatives at BAE Systems said they will ask for a detailed explanation regarding the FX decision in their meetings with officials of the Japanese government and the Defense Ministry.
The F-35 is still in the development stage, untested operationally, and a series of glitches and delays in its development have already been reported.
The immediate challenge for Lockheed Martin will be if the company can meet the ministry's deadline for delivery of the first F-35 by the end of fiscal 2016.
The ministry said it has received assurance of the delivery from an official in charge of development of the F-35 at the U.S. Defense Department.
The FX deal is part of the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, a U.S. government program promoting the sales of U.S. arms, defense equipment and other defense-related matters to foreign governments.
Masahiro Matsumura, professor of national security at St. Andrew's University in Izumi, Osaka Prefecture, was critical of the decision to select the F-35.
"When we purchase a car, we test-drive the vehicle," he said. "(The Japanese government) must have conducted the selection process based only on what they've seen on paper to pick the F-35."
The costs involved in the F-35 project and the delivery deadline are given based on estimates, he added.
"The FMS program requires approval from the U.S. Congress," Matsumura said. "It is not a done deal."
A senior Defense Ministry official said, "(the ministry) has no choice but to believe that promises between the two governments will be honored."
The defense industry in Japan appears anxious about the future of the F-35 project. The ministry announced Dec. 20 that it had chosen Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and other companies to help build and maintain the aircraft.
But it is not clear yet when production will begin. Mitsubishi Heavy's production of the F-2 fighter jets for the ASDF ended in September.
Manufacturers are hoping to minimize the lag period by moving on to build the F-35, but there is no guarantee, analysts say, that they can start in the near future.
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