For more than half of a century, the foundations of Japanese defense policy rested on two core principles, Japan's own efforts to build-up and maintain relevant capabilities and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Throughout this period, the procurement of the cutting edge weapons systems necessary to meet the former overlapped with the requirements of the latter. Pursuing the best capabilities to guarantee adequate defenses for the Japanese archipelago meant buying the latest available American systems. This, however, might no longer be the case, and breaking with this pattern presents today an important dilemma to Japanese policymakers.
The competition for the procurement of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) next-generation fighter, also known as "FX," is a symptomatic example of such a dilemma. Latest news coverage suggests that Japanese authorities will soon make an official announcement. The announcement will come at the end of a ferocious battle that is witnessing for the first time a non-American aircraft competing for the procurement of a major combat platform.
At the heart of the competition is a multi-billion yen (55 billion yen just for the first four jets) contract for approximately 40 fighters to replace the JASDF fleet of outdated F-4 aircraft. The new aircraft will play a key role in air defense superiority missions. The guiding principles to assess the suitable candidates were four, with significant emphasis put on performance, followed by other criteria including costs, industrial cooperation opportunities and support structure following acquisition.
Three candidates entered the final selection process, the F-35, the Eurofighter, and the F-18. Of these three options, the F-35 is on paper the one with superior performance characteristics--a 5th-generation jet fighter, followed by the Eurofighter, an aircraft regarded to be a 4-4.5-generation fighter. The argument has been so far that this generational gap makes the F-35 the strongest candidate. But is this really the case? A question worth asking is what exactly is that "5th-generation fighter" supposed to bring to the table?
In the case of the F-35, its superiority is supposed to be provided by its stealth capabilities. Here the word "supposed" is crucial as these technical advantages remain for the moment largely on paper or in mock-up simulations, and not up in the sky where they would have to bring substance to the definition.
This leads to a more important point. The F-35 is an operationally untested aircraft, widely reported to run into constant escalating costs (the actual cost is considered to be much higher than the current projections) and with serious issues in relation to delivery timetables. Crucially, there is no way to know at the moment if its most distinctive feature--the superior stealth capabilities--will make a difference in real-time missions.
This is because of two main reasons. First, there is an assumption in arguments around the F-35, that by the time it will enter into service, technology will have not provided new effective counter-measures to its "superior" stealth features. Second, there is little guarantee as to whether once it is fully armed this configuration will not have an impact on its stealth capabilities.
Insofar as the other requirements for the FX are concerned, it is similarly unclear the extent to which the Japanese defense industry will be given access to the advanced technology behind the fighter. And if so, will this be enough for the Japanese defense industry to develop the basic know-how to join new projects in the future, were it choose to do so?
Another point that seems to be emerging in the debate around the FX concerns the question of "interoperability" with the U.S. military. Again, this argument is supposed to give the F-35 an edge over the Eurofighter. In light of the operations conducted by NATO countries alongside the United States, from Afghanistan to Libya, this sort of consideration makes little sense.
In all, once all the cards are down, the reality is that the Eurofighter is, among the three competitors, the only operational fighter that ticks all the boxes. Some have said and continuously argued that it is not the best in absolute terms. Well, we do not know that yet. We do not know because the bigger "unknown" is the type of performance that the F-35 can deliver. An unknown that seems it will remain as such for a while.
The Eurofighter meets the advanced technology requirements of the bid, it is less expensive than the F-35, and offers real industrial opportunities. More crucially, it is the only candidate that features state-of-the-art technology that was designed to emphasize the use of this fighter in air defense superiority roles (the core mission for the FX) and that can be put into service in conformity with the timetable of the Japan Ministry of Defense (JMoD).
Japanese major newspapers have recently leaked that, according to Japanese sources, the F-35 is about to be selected as the next FX. Whether this is going to be the case is unclear. What is clear though is that if the choice falls upon the F-35, it will be a decision based on the will to favor alliance management priorities over Japanese air defense requirements.
For the first time in the history of post-war Japan, serving the requirements of one of the two core principles of Japanese defense might not serve those of the other. The dilemma for Japanese policymakers is evident: are they ready to risk to invest in a product with no real guarantee (at the moment) to meet the core requirement of Japan’s own effort to procure the best means to defend the archipelago?
In this respect, since the "unknowns" about F-35 are no secret, their choice might well send a mixed message about Japanese defense policy to neighboring countries. The decision to buy an unfinished, untested, and astronomically expensive fighter will be probably met with favor in Beijing. The likely effect of such a procurement move will be to slow down the pace of modernization of Japanese air defenses and their effectiveness, whilst imposing costs that might have repercussions on other components of defense capabilities.
Similarly, it will send a mixed message about the nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The alliance represents one of the pillars of regional security. But, what does a move based on putting American defense industry interests over the need to support Japan to maintain an effective defense system say about the nature of the alliance?
In the not-too-distant future, the JMoD will have to replace and modernize the remaining (and much larger) component of its aging aircraft. By then, many of the unknowns about the F-35 will be known, and the decision-making process about future procurement will be able to incorporate the new evidence. Many have portrayed over the past few months the possibility of a major non-American combat system to be introduced in Japan as a hazardous move that would put in jeopardy a strategic partnership. This is simply not the case.
It is true that Japanese defense stands today at a crossroads, and the choice for the FX is an important indicator of the Japanese willingness to remain a serious military player. Making a choice in the best interests of Japanese defense capabilities will serve the alliance too. In the FX bid, the question is not one of "either/or," but one of "how best" to send a clear message. Now, the jury is out and soon we will know the answer.
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Alessio Patalano is a lecturer in war studies and specializes in East Asian security and Japanese naval history at the Department of War Studies at King's College London.
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