Japan is open to choosing a European aircraft as its long-awaited new air defence fighter, despite decades of reliance on the US for imports of sophisticated weapon systems, according to new Japanese defence minister, Yasuo Ichikawa.
In an interview with the FT, Ichikawa said Japan’s alliance with the US would not be a “major criterion” in deciding between the Eurofighter Typhoon and US rivals Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
After years of delay, Tokyo is now set to decide before the end of December on the purchase of around 42 fighters, a deal estimated to be worth more than $6bn and that could have far-reaching implications for the competing aircraft.
Analysts have in the past generally assumed that Tokyo’s close military alliance with Washington and post-war practice of relying almost exclusively on the US for imports of advanced weapon systems meant Eurofighter had little chance of winning the deal.
However, Washington’s decision not to allow Japan to buy Lockheed’s stealthy and highly capable F-22- Tokyo’s favoured option- appears to have opened an unprecedented opportunity for the Eurofighter consortium.
The four nation European group received a major boost in April when its Typhoon fighter was shortlisted, along with France’s Dassault Rafale, for an Indian deal to purchase 126 aircraft. That decision was a heavy blow to the US defence establishment, after heavy lobbying from Washington.
The US had pitched Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed’s F-16 Super Viper to India, both planes defence experts considered to be less advanced than some of the competition.
Ichikawa, who was named defence minister earlier this month, insisted that the Japanese selection process would be “rigorous and fair”, and waved aside suggestions that spurning the US could cause strains with Washington.
“Though there may be all kinds of talk on the sellers’ side, we don’t intend to take that into account when making the choice,”Ichikawa said. “We’ll just calmly take those issues in our stride and make a proper decision from a technical point of view, as that is in Japan’s national interest.”
Kunihiko Miyake, a security expert at the Canon Global Institute, said buying a European fighter would have a “big political impact” on Japan-US ties.
However, Miyake said the defence minister would be right to put technical and tactical issues before procurement diplomacy, noting delays to the F-35 programme that meant it might not be available for delivery for some years.
“If they are not going to sell us the F-22 and the F-35 is not ready on the shelf, then other aircraft are available that are good enough,” he said.
A pioneering sale to Tokyo would be a major boost for Eurofighter and the UK’s BAE Systems, the consortium’s lead company for the Japan market, and would be sure to win a warm welcome in European capitals.
“It would be a great step forward for the security relationship between the UK, Europe and Japan, and would have the additional benefit of strengthening trade relations,” said Tony Ennis, BAE’s president for north east Asia.
As well as promising quicker delivery than the F-35, Eurofighter is also thought to be willing to share much more of the Typhoon’s core technology with Japanese contractors than its US rivals.
Unlike the F-35, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is already in service. However, it suffers from perceptions that it is older platform that in its rivals- claims that Boeing dismisses, saying the total redevelopment of the airframe used in earlier F/A-18 models and all new electronics mean it is “very much a 21st century aircraft”. -By Mure Dickie