Japan’s F-3 project may prove too ambitious and take up too many resources, especially defense dollars
by Stephen Bryen
Originally Published in Asia Times
Japan claims that the Pentagon has signaled that the US and Lockheed will provide critical stealth technology to Japan for it to develop a new, stealth platform essentially a modernized version of the F-22 called the F-3. To get from here to there Japan will need the electronics hardware and software built into the F-35 and advanced engine technology. Still unaccounted for is where the stealth design part of the technology will come from for the proposed Japanese fighter. If Japan is thinking it will come from the United States, that might be a mistake.
The project is still far away from approval, and the US will have to weigh some major policy changes if it follows through on any plan to transfer F-35 technology to Japan.
Japan’s goal, reportedly is to replace its 82 home-built F-2’s and possibly its 102 F-15J aircraft. Even with some extra aircraft for redundancy and training, the total buy for the F-3 would be less than 200 aircraft. This is right around the number of F-22’s that were built in the US before the program was halted because the aircraft was far too expensive to buy, too expensive and difficult to maintain, and barely combat available, in 2017 only 49.01 percent the planes could be used in combat. Factoring in research and development costs, the F-22 price tag was $334 million per copy. The F-22 cost around $70,000 per hour to operate. (The F-35 is supposed to cost around $30,000 per hour to operate, but the hourly costs so far are only projections. The reliability of the F-35 is also uncertain –right now around 50 percent combat ready– though reliability depends on the operating environment of the different F-35 models and the fact that many of the planes operating are low production early platforms.)
No one can even guess what a new Japanese stealth fighter based on the F-22 would cost per copy, or how much it would be to keep it air worthy and operational. The experience of the Japan home built F-2 came in at a unit price of $127 million in 2009 US dollars or $148.65 million in 2019 US dollars. Comparatively the F-16 for the C/D models came in at $18.8 million in 1998 dollars or $29.32 million in 2019 dollars. Even taking into account significant enhancements to the F-16, and better electronics in the F-2 when it came off the line (compared to the then-F-16 models), Japan was paying at least three times the cost of the US aircraft. If we were to calculate the fully loaded price of the F-22 ($334 million) and compare it to the future Japanese F-3, any cost projection would figure to be twice or three times the price of the F-22 or even more.
Does Japan Need the F-3?
Japan had long sought to buy the F-22, but foreign sales of the F-22 were blocked by Congress. The justification for blocking exports was the uniqueness of the all-aspect stealth design, the special variable thrust engines to give it combat maneuverability and an allegedly reduced infrared engine signature, making it hard for an enemy to lock on with air to air heat seeking missiles.
While the F-35 exceeds the F-22 in its engine and electronics, the F-35 is not an all-aspect stealth platform and it does not have supercruise capability. Supercruise is the ability to sustain supersonic speed without the use of engine afterburners. But the F-35 can carry a heavier load of weapons and has better range.
For any F-3 to be successful, it would have to have all-aspect stealth and a range and load carrying capability better than the F-35. Whether that can be achieved by “blending” F-35 with F-22 stealth capability into a new F-3 would have to be a significant challenge. Japan, with no stealth aircraft design experience would be operating in uncharted territory and could fail.
From a strategic and tactical perspective, the new F-3 would have to offer considerably more capability than the F-35, which is today the dominant fighter platform in the Pacific region. While China has developed the stealth-like Chengdu J-20 fighter and is completing work on the Shenyang F-C 31, supposedly an F-35 knock-off, it is far from clear these are good stealth platforms. In March, 2018 Indian Su-30MKI fighter jets were able to detect the J-20 on radar, as the planes operating near the Indian border. While it would be interesting to know whether the J-20’s have been detected on Western radar sets, no one is saying. Whether Japan actually needs a combat capability better than the F-35 is an open question.
Another possibility is that Japan wants to be able to self-build advanced 5th or 6th generation combat aircraft and keep its aerospace industry active in this field. This is not an unreasonable idea, but whether it is achievable or affordable seems to be the real issue. In the United States there is fear that the F-35 will so dominate the combat aircraft industrial base that Boeing, who produces both the F-18 and F-15 jets, may soon have to shut down their production line in St. Louis. To keep it alive, the Pentagon wants to buy around 20 new F-15X fighters, but they don’t yet have a budget for that and some in Congress are skeptical. Of course keeping the St. Louis facility viable is an important hedge should the F-35 program falter or have unknown combat flaws. Moreover, the F-35 has limited weapon’s carrying capability, which helps explain why the Pentagon is again re-investing in revitalizing both B-1 and B-52 bombers that can carry cruise missiles and, eventually hypersonic weapons.
Both Japan and the United States are facing the approaching end-of-life of their respective F-15 and F-16 fleets (and in Japan’s case also the F-2). In the US its fighters have been rapidly degraded because of intensive use in the Iraq, Syrian and Afghan wars. For Japan less so, but frequent flybys near Japan and its island chains, including the strategic Miyako strait, by both Russian and Chinese aircraft have taken a toll of Japan’s Air Force.
Impact on Defense Budget
Despite some increases recently, Japan is spending only about 1 percent of its GDP on defense or around $42 billion in 2015 that will rise to $47 billion for 2019. Most of this will go for buying the Aegis on-shore ballistic missile air defense system and new F-35’s. If the F-3 is added, Japan would either have to add significantly more to its defense budget, or cut other programs –more likely, both. Even then, it isn’t clear that Japan can get domestic political support for the scale of expenditures needed for the F-3 project, even though such a project would boost employment in the aerospace sector. For Japan, however an additional burden is that it cannot expect to gain any foreign military sales for these aircraft, meaning that the total cost is on the Japanese taxpayer.
Impact on US Technology Transfers
In the F-35 program Lockheed stiff-armed its international partners refusing to transfer either the computers or computer codes of the F-35 and demanding (except in the case of Israel) that partners use the integrated logistic management system, giving Lockheed (and the United States) considerable control over international versions of the F-35. The Pentagon fielded frequent complaints from allies, particularly the British and Italians about the Lockheed-imposed restrictions. But Lockheed treated the computers and software as proprietary and exclusive (even though the research and development was government funded).
Would Japan be treated preferentially compared to American NATO allies and Israel? Lockheed has not said so yet, and the reports about Pentagon acquiescence may be entirely speculative.
No one yet knows what Japan wants from Lockheed (and its suppliers, especially engine maker Pratt and Whitney), but the guessing is that for Japan to have any chance to build the F-3 it needs all the outside help it can get. Before any decision on technology release can take place in Washington, the transfer details need to be spelled out. If stealth know-how is also part of the deal, the Pentagon’s “LO-CLO” community will have to approve. LO-CLO refers to Low Observable-Counter Low Observable, meaning stealth and counter-stealth technology. Defense Department Instruction S-5230.28 gives this special group significant leverage over any technology release decision. And, because the Defense Department is so deeply committed to the F-35 program, giving out any of the F-35’s technology seems unlikely.
It is far from certain Japan has enough clout to overcome resistance in the Pentagon or even in the Congress where there is a large and powerful Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) Caucus of 103 members of the House of Representatives. Because appropriations measures originate in the House and not the US Senate, the Caucus has a lot of influence on Capitol Hill. Lockheed, for example wants to make sure it keeps its many defense programs going and enlarging, so it has to tread carefully when it comes to any foreign deals it might want to make (if in fact Lockheed actually wants to do a deal with Japan for the F-3, which is not certain).
Japan’s F-3 project may prove too ambitious and take up too many resources, especially defense dollars. It also could plunge Japan into an argument with the Pentagon and US Congress it probably does not want. For the above reasons, the F-3 project may never get underway.