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Japan picks F-35 as its next-generation fighter

Date Posted: 2011-12-23

The Japanese government has formally adopted Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 stealth jet as the nation's next-generation fighter that will succeed the aging fleet of F-4 fighters.
The decision was made at a meeting of the Security Council of Japan, and the cabinet later approved the decision. The F-35 was the only fifth-generation fighter among the three candidate models, which also included Boeing Co.'s F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Japan chose the F-35 in view of its advanced features, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa told a news conference, noting than Japan needs to address changes in the security situation. The Defense Ministry said the F-35 fighter led the candidate models in three of the ministry's four selection criteria, such as performance and cost. The F-35 was given the highest total score. Officials say the government took into account progress in the development of fifth-generation fighters by China and Russia.

Concern about China is especially strong in Japan now. In the six months through September, Air Self-Defense Force jets were scrambled 83 times in response to possible airspace violation by Chinese aircraft, a 3.4-fold increase over the year-before level. The F-35 is a single-engine jet 16 meters long and 11 meters wide. The aircraft is hard to detect on radar and has an advanced communications system allowing pilots to share information on enemy aircraft easily. It is still being developed by nine nations including the United States and Britain.

Licensed F-35 production in Japan is not permitted in principle, meaning that Japanese defense contractors' involvement in production will be limited. Critics question whether Lockheed Martin can deliver the jet by the end of fiscal 2016 as required by the Defense Ministry, as its development has been delayed significantly, but Ichikawa said the U.S. firm has clearly promised to meet the deadline. The ministry has requested funds to buy four units under the fiscal 2012 budget. The F-35 fleet will eventually be expanded to 42 planes.

Under the fiscal 2012 budget, the ministry estimates the acquisition cost at 9.9 billion per unit, including spare parts. Lockheed says the price of the fighter will be $65 million per unit on the assumption that the model will be mass-manufactured. Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department estimates the unit price at around $111 million each for initial models. Further delays in product development may push up the price further, and critics also express worries that the F-35 has not been tested in actual warfare.

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