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Politics

Japan reassures US on F-35 purchase despite crash

Jet's role in diplomacy and defense trumps safety concerns -- for now

Japan's military is positioning the F-35A as the next mainstay of its air forces, but the crash this month has raised concerns about the plane. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force)

WASHINGTON -- The recent crash of an F-35A stealth fighter jet will not stop Tokyo's plans to buy more of the aircraft, which is crucial to strengthening defense capabilities and maintaining a strong relationship with its ally, the U.S., Japan's defense minister said after meeting his American counterpart.

"At this point, we have no specific information that would lead to a change in procurement plans," Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters after meeting Friday with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at the Pentagon. Iwaya said he and Shanahan discussed Japan's plans for deploying American defense equipment, including F-35 purchases.

The Japanese government is positioning the mainly U.S.-developed F-35 as the backbone of its air force, replacing aging F-4s and F-15s that have become difficult to keep up to date. After its initial order of 42 F-35As, the cabinet last year approved plans to buy another 105 jets. This includes 42 F-35Bs, which are capable of vertical takeoff and landing and could be deployed from a destroyer that Japan is converting into an aircraft carrier.

The additional purchases come against the backdrop of U.S. President Donald Trump's repeated calls for Japan to buy more American defense equipment to shrink its trade surplus. Trump personally thanked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for buying so many F-35s when the two leaders met in Argentina last November.

Japan has received 13 F-35As so far, of which four were built in the U.S. and the rest assembled in Japan from American components. The government plans to procure six more this fiscal year. Going forward, Tokyo will stick to importing finished jets, as it is more cost-effective.

Though Japan's Self-Defense Forces have yet to put F-35s into active service, Tokyo hopes that adding U.S.-made planes to the fleet will help it serve as a greater deterrent, especially given the jet's capability to be equipped with advanced interceptor missiles that could potentially destroy ballistic missiles in midair.

But the April 9 crash during a training mission could derail these plans. Little is known about the crash as both the U.S. and Japan scour the Pacific off the northeast coast of Japan to look for wreckage of the jet. The pilot, who is still missing, had called for the mission to end before his plane went down. Should the incident turn out to have been caused by a defect in the plane, Tokyo could face calls to stop buying them.

According to the Defense Ministry, five of Japan's 13 F-35As have been involved in seven emergency landings. Two of the incidents involved faults in the plane that later crashed. While the jets were inspected each time to confirm they were safe to fly, the ministry is checking again to see if there might be any links to the accident.

The U.S. has not disclosed details of the F-35's state-of-the-art technology to other countries, and there are worries that China or Russia could get their hands on the wreckage and unlock some of its secrets, including the jet's capability to shoot down ballistic missiles. This is among the reasons why Washington is sending a deep-sea search vessel to the site of the incident to help find the wreckage.

If the cause of the crash turns out to involve sensitive information about the plane, the U.S. could be reluctant to share it with even its close ally Japan.

The medium-term defense program approved by the Japanese government in late 2018 calls for a record 27 trillion yen ($205 billion) in spending over the next five years, in an effort to bolster Japan's defenses as well as revitalize its defense industry. The F-35 is central to these plans, and a disruption to procurement would throw a wrench in the works.

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