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Defense Ministry to develop own fighter jet to succeed F-2, may seek int'l project

The Defense Ministry (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Ministry of Defense has decided to develop a new aircraft to succeed the F-2 fighter, as proposals from three American and British companies for a replacement failed to meet the ministry's costs and capability requirements, government officials told the Mainichi Shimbun.

The ministry plans to incorporate the project into the next five-year mid-term defense program to be drawn up at the end of the year, with an eye on a joint development program with foreign companies to lower the overall financial burden, which could reach trillions of yen. The ministry also hopes to pursue introducing main components such as the engine that incorporate Japan's own technology.

As many as 92 F-2s are owned by the Air Self-Defense Force, and will begin to reach the end of their service life in the 2030s. The quick adoption of a replacement plan is necessary as developing a fighter jet can take 10 years or more. In response to a government call for proposals, three American and British manufacturers made offers to upgrade their existing models -- Lockheed Martin for its F-22, Boeing for its F-15, and BAE for its Eurofighter Typhoon.

However, refurbishing the stealthy, state-of-the-art F-22 is expensive, and "no clear explanation was given about the possibility of the U.S. government lifting the export ban" on the aircraft, according to a senior ministry official. The two other proposals also failed to meet the ministry's requirements.

The remaining option is domestic development, which has the backing of defense industry groups and some ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers seeking to preserve the production and maintenance platforms for Japan's fighter jets. However, a number of challenges including extremely high costs and a lack of sufficient development experience on the part of Japanese companies are still obstacles for the project.

The ministry has invested some 190 billion yen so far to conduct a technical study on the engine and electronic system for a next-generation fighter jet from fiscal 2009 through 2018, but the developed engine is still being tested to determine its basic capabilities and no plan is set for a flight test.

The government is therefore seeking to share the financial burden with British or German-French partners as they are also looking into developing next-generation jets. But an international program could lead to difficulties in coordinating differing requirements for the deadline, capabilities and distribution of tasks. The United States, Japan's national security ally, has just introduced new F-35 fighters and has no immediate plan for their replacement.

Some in the Ministry of Defense have proposed making a decision about an outline for the new development of the jets at the end of the year, deferring a decision on whether it should be a domestic project or joint undertaking with foreign companies. Under the proposal, Japan will advance domestic technological development while continuing to negotiate with potential foreign partners.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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