TOKYO -- Japan has heard proposals from three U.S. aerospace companies on its program for a next-generation fighter jet, as Tokyo looks to forge a framework including cost and time estimates by the end of 2020.
Officials from Tokyo and Washington met remotely in late June for the first substantive talks on developing the successor to the F-2, which is slated for retirement. Japan intends to take the lead on the project, handling core parts such as engines, while getting technological support from the U.S.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries also was represented at the meeting, during which Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman each presented proposals.
All three contractors possess a wealth of experience, having delivered fighters or bombers for the U.S. military. Each offers particular strengths: Lockheed in stealth technology, Boeing in materials and Northrop in radar and electronic systems. Tapping their expertise would improve performance while potentially reducing development time and costs compared with a purely homegrown jet.
But relying too much on American technology would rob Japan's domestic defense industry of a golden opportunity to develop its own capabilities and win orders. Tokyo also worries that Washington may not be forthcoming with important technical information, making it impossible to update the planes at will -- a problem with the F-2.
The Japanese Defense Ministry's Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency began testing a domestically built prototype stealth fighter, the X-2, in fiscal 2016.
The extent to which Japan can take the lead on the F-2 successor project will be a key element in choosing a U.S. partner or partners. Other factors include cost, the role played by Japanese companies, interoperability with U.S. systems and ease of future upgrades.
Public- and private-sector representatives will meet monthly to examine the three contractors' proposals.
Alongside the U.S. negotiations, Japan also will pursue a technical partnership with the U.K., which is planning its own next-generation fighter jet. Though Tokyo opted against London as its main partner for the project, the two plan to share technology.
Japan's Defense Ministry earmarked about 11 billion yen ($102 million) in the fiscal 2020 budget for basic design. More detailed design work will begin in fiscal 2021.
Yet much remains uncertain. With the U.S. presidential election coming up in November, President Donald Trump may press for Washington to take the reins instead of Japan as he courts voters.
And the fighter jet project could become entangled with negotiations this fall on Japan's share of the cost of housing American troops.
"If the cost-sharing negotiations hit a wall, President Trump may target the next-generation fighter program," a Japanese government insider warned.