This article is available also in Polish version.
The United States and Japan are finishing negotiations on the sale of the first four F-35 Lightning II. The relevant contract is to be signed by the end of June. It appears that the search for the new fighter for Japan is coming to a positive conclusion for the Americans. But it is not so certain.
Lockheed F-35 was selected in December last year for the next multi-purpose fighter for the Air Self-Defence Force (ASDF).The choice was met in Japan with criticism, concerning not only the aircraft, but also the entire tender. In a nutshell, Japan is looking for a new aircraft to replace the already worn-out F-4; on the final table, other than F-35, the options of the Boeing F-18 and Eurofighter Typhoon were eliminated. Critics emphasize that construction of the Lockheed is less available than already produced rivals, which instead have two engines, unlike the F-35. It is an undeniably useful feature during sea flights (an common task for Japanese air forces), in the event of damage, increasing the chances of safe return to base. It was also mentioned that the Typhoon was designed as a fighter from scratch, incl. „dogfighting”, and because of that is better suited to the Japanese requirements. The main burden of criticism fell on the assumption of the tender, Japanese requirements and delays and increasing costs of the whole F-35 program.
First, there was no defined maximum price of new aircraft, which in the case of F-35 still continues to grow. Aircrafts for the USAF are expected, based on the recent evidence, to cost about $ 153 million apiece; in the case of fighters for the ASDF, it was initially about $65 million apiece or $ 4 billion for all 42. In February, however, a price of around 7 billion dollars was already given. Recently, the Americans estimated total costs for the Japanese for the aircraft, pilot training, equipment, etc. at $ 10 billion. The Japanese are concerned about the slippage in the implementation of the whole program. Another problem is the Japanese expectations. Tokyo demands the opening of a maintenance facility in Japan. According to current plans, the only such facility outside the United States is to be located in Italy. The Japanese government is also interested in participating in the production of hulls and engines for the F-35. Gradually relaxed Cold War, restrictive laws regarding the export of weapons and limiting, in effect, cooperation of the local defence industry only to the U.S. is no longer such a problem. More problematic is the question of the terms under which Japan would join the production and development program of the F-35. It is very important that, under the contract, the first four aircraft be delivered by the end of the 2016 fiscal year, while priority is given to program participants.
Hoping to fulfil this last condition, Vice Admiral David Venlent announced, at the hearing in the Senate Arms Services Committee, the development of the right software for the Japanese fighters at that time, which also was one of the points of contention. Hope for the delivery of aircraft by the end of March 2017 is in the review of the procurements by the U.S. and other countries – members of the program. The current negotiation on the unit price of the first four fighters, according to the Japanese, is not to cross the limit of ¥ 10 billion (about $ 125 million). However, the government in Tokyo already assigned the amount of ¥ 60 billion (about $ 750 million) in this year’s budget to all expenses associated with the purchase of F-35 .The Japanese Ministry of Defence still warns Washington that, in case of failure to meet the expectations and further price increases, sharp criticism of the tender from Parliament may occur, and even the cancellation of the F-35 purchase. Defence Minister Tanaka also made such statements in parliament.
As the Japanese media suggests, the U.S. Navy has a lot to say in negotiations process. This may mean that the contract will apply to the carrier-based version of the F-35C, or far more likely to mention dates VSTOL F-35B. Note that, in January, the keel was laid for a new helicopter destroyer, which is a structurally normal light aircraft carrier (full displacement of 27 thousand. T, length 248 m).According to Forecast International study centre, some design changes in the previous helicopter destroyer/ light aircraft Hyuga type suggest that the new ships, tentatively known as 22DDH type will be, from the beginning, designed to support the carrier-based aircraft (F-35B / C) and tiltrotor V-22 Osprey. Maritime Self-Defence Forces (MSDF) and the Ministry of Defence did not comment on this topic. The question therefore arises, whether in few years (and the corresponding changes in the law), Lockheed will have an opportunity to start in the tender of carrier based fighter for MSDF. Given the problems that accompany the F-35B, a Japanese contract would be true salvation for this aircraft. It may even be some solace, if contract negotiations for the ASDF do not end well, for the Americans.
Despite efforts to buy the F-35, Japan leads, from several years conceptual work, in development of their own V-generation fighter, and the escalating problems associated with the purchase of American aircraft have led to the intensification of this work. On 28 March, in the Research Centre of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Aerospace Systems, located in Tobishima, a special ceremony accompanying the start of mounting the ATD-X fighter model in 1:1 scale was held. The model will be used to test the aerodynamics and stealth capabilities of the airframe. The costs of this phase of work, conducted jointly with the Ministry of Defence, are expected to be ¥ 39.2 billion (nearly $ 0.5 billion).”Our goal is to create a fighter completely made in Japan. Today we put the first step on a long and bumpy path,” said media Takashi Kobayashi, one of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries executive directors. Primary ATD-X had to replace F-15 and part of F-4, but is already being considered as an alternative to F-35.
The Ministry of Defence did not officially comment on the plane. Mitsubishi itself indicates that the company’s aim is to build a fighter able to cope with the stealth fighters, which „may soon be deployed near Japan.” The only such aircraft that may be in the near future is the enigmatic Chinese J-20. Under current plans, flight of the prototype is to take place in 2014, and the entire program should be completed by March 2017. This coincidence may bode poorly for the F-35, especially if the ATD-X is cheaper, so Washington and Lockheed could face unpleasant disappointment.