Tokyo’s new governing Democratic Party of Japan is not expected to distance itself from the U.S. or to strip defense budgets. In fact, Japanese defense officials are looking at 2010 as the year that the U.S. may change its laws about exporting the stealth fighter.
Meanwhile, any policy changes in Japan would likely be minor and reflect the directions set by previous governments.
“We are seeing a transformation in our alliance with the Japanese,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward A. Rice, Jr., commander of the 5th Air Force and U.S. Forces Japan, prior to the election. “It involves working as partners with each accepting some level of risk and each providing capabilities that the other may not have.”
That cuts directly to the thorny issue of Japan’s long-term desire to buy the F-22 so that its speed, altitude, stealth, precision bombing and long-range electronic surveillance capabilities could make up for the dearth of Japanese airbases between Okinawa, China and North Korea. However, the F-22 line may shut down before sales to Japan can be approved.
Japanese military officials tell Aviation Week that they must have positive, immediate control of the F-22 force which they don’t think will be possible if the aircraft belong to the U.S. – which would doubtlessly require a complicated approval process – instead of the Japan Air Self Defense Force.
“It is very important for Japan to have that capability in practical and tactical terms,” says Lt. Gen. Hidetoshi Hirata, commander of the Southwest Composite Air Division headquartered in Okinawa, in a conversation with Aviation Week Sept. 3. “More importantly, it has great meaning in a strategic [and deterrent] sense. Even the U.S. stationing F-22s in Japan on a regular or permanent basis, may not compensate strategically for [the lack] of Japan’s possession of the F-22.”
The U.S. says it will ensure that U.S. F-22s are available to defend Japan. Rice contends that it may require only a reformulation of forces to avoid redundancies and minimize gaps in capability between what each country supplies to the alliance.
“The U.S. has invested in F-22 and it is a capability that we can make available to the alliance,” Rice says. “It’s not a capability that Japan must possess. There are various ways to get to an all-5th generation force structure.”
“The Japanese have a very clear view of [regional threats] and [unlike the U.S., they] aren't hampered in … their analysis by having a low-tech war here-and-now that's distracting them,” the intelligence official says. “They're right to be concerned, although in the long term they have less to worry about in North Korea than they think. As their economy pulls out of its nose dive they'll be eager to apply some of our [defense] technology to their problems. I don't see any downside to that.”