TOKYO -- U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin has approached Japan with plans for a next-generation fighter jet based on its elite F-22 stealth fighter, demonstrating both Washington's trust in Tokyo as a defense partner and its eagerness to balance the scales on trade with expensive equipment.
The advanced aircraft would enter service around 2030, when Japan is set to start retiring its fleet of F-2 fighters. It would combine elements of the F-22 and Lockheed's smart F-35 stealth fighter. Developing a new fighter typically takes more than 10 years.
The Japanese government has pegged the total cost of its next-generation fighter project at around 6 trillion yen ($55 billion). This includes 1.5 trillion yen for development and another 1.5 trillion yen for acquiring around 100 of the jets, in addition to costs such as maintenance and decommissioning.
Tokyo will decide as early as this year whether to accept Lockheed's offer so that the government can draw up a medium-term defense plan that would begin in fiscal 2019.
The inclusion of F-22 technology in the new jet is of particular significance to Japan. When Tokyo sought to purchase a fleet of F-22s a decade ago, U.S. lawmakers barred the Japanese government from doing so due to concerns about sending information on sensitive military technology abroad. The fighters are no longer in production.
Trade, more than military strategy, seems to have spurred Washington's change of heart. President Donald Trump looks to score political points by lowering America's roughly $70 billion trade deficit with Japan, and sees expensive military equipment as a prime tool for doing so.
Part of that reasoning is economic: Fighters cost much more on a unit-by-unit basis than do cars or farm products. Another is political. The U.S. defense sector was shaken by attempts under former President Barack Obama to curb defense spending growth. By bringing contractors new business, Trump aims to fill out his record ahead of what promises to be a tough round of midterm elections in the U.S. Congress in November.
Japan, however, faces a difficult decision over whether to accept Lockheed's offer. The country has long sought to produce its next-generation fighter aircraft on its own soil. At the same time, the Northeast Asian security environment is in constant flux as China expands its military might and North Korea refuses to commit to abandoning its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It would be difficult for Japan to turn down an offer of arms from the U.S., its strongest ally.
Lockheed will draw up the details of its development plan for the F-22/F-35 hybrid aircraft as soon as this summer.
"We look forward to exploring options for Japan's F-2 replacement fighter in cooperation with both the Japanese and U.S. governments," said Lockheed. "Our leadership and experience with fifth-generation aircraft [such as the F-22 and F-35] can be leveraged to provide innovative, cost-effective capabilities to meet Japan's future security needs."
Japan hopes to hand much of the work involved to domestic companies. One potential route would be to have companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries take the lead on development while cooperating with American businesses. Another plan would involve joint development by Japanese and British contractors.
Drawing technology from the F-22 would give the new plane top-of-the-line stealth capabilities as well as the ability to travel at supersonic speeds. Although stealthiness and excellent flight performance are generally seen as incompatible, the F-22 puts them into a single package, earning the jet its reputation as the world's most lethal fighter. The F-35, meanwhile, has unparalleled network and software capabilities that allow it to communicate with other aircraft and facilities on the ground and share radar data.