TOKYO, Dec. 18 -- Japan's Ministry of Defense (MOD) on Wednesday said it is mulling to increase the number of Lockheed Martin F-35 multirole stealth fighters it plans to add to its Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) contingent, with an eye to making the fifth-generation jet its mainstay fighter.
Following approval by the Cabinet on Tuesday to broaden the scope of Japan's defense and security guidelines, the MOD is considering focusing more of its attention on achieving what it has described as "superior air-combat capability," as five year mid-term and longer-term defense and security protocols and the allocation of funds become pivotal focal points for the Cabinet and the MOD henceforth.
The MOD's new consideration is to possibly replace the ASDF's aging mainstay F-15 fighters with the F-35's, officials said, adding that they had already decided to retire the force's F-4 fighters and replace them with 42 F-35's.
The U.S. Pentagon-led F-35 operation, its biggest arms program, has, however, been mired with problems, including technical glitches and production delays, which have pushed up costs to as much as 70 percent over initial estimates, but defense officials here confirmed that orders should be received as early as fiscal 2016 and that prices are coming down due to increasing international orders.
The fifth-generation multirole, stealth fighter jets, have been selected by Japan's MOD as they offer superior stealth capabilities, second only to that of the U.S. F-22 Raptor, with a radar cross-section roughly equal to the size of a metal golf ball, making the jet largely undetectable to radars.
Japan's defense ministry also said it has been impressed with the jet's data link system that can share information with the latest radars.
Moreover, however, the Japanese government, in light of its controversial plans to possibly ease its decades-old ban on weapons exports, wants companies here to be involved in the production of the jet and provide superlative technical and logistical support as Japan's aviation industry is widely regarded as being in a technical league of its own.
The move, despite an inevitable backlash from opposition parties and the public, who are widely against lifting the export ban, would also provide a myriad of much-needed economic opportunities at a time when Japan is battling to rein in its public debt at more than twice the size of GDP and the worst in the industrialized world.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., has been earmarked to be involved in work on the F-35's mainframe structures, while IHI Corp. will provide its expertise on the jet's engines and related systems, sources familiar with the matter said.
In addition, Mitsubishi Electric Corp., for its part, has been slated to be involved in the production of the jet's highly sensitive mission-related avionics.
Lockheed Martin has said that Japan could feasibly become " global suppliers to the F-35 stealth fighter program," with Japanese contractors being in a position to bid for a myriad of lucrative defense contracts in the U.S. and elsewhere, once the ban is eased, defense analysts here said.
They added that Japan could utilize its domestic manufacturers to tap-into foreign markets and make further cost-effective purchases of military hardware, including ships, aircraft carriers, jets, helicopters, missiles and next-generation electronic and laser-based weapons, through wholesale purchases and production- affiliated subsidies.
The defense analysts noted however that due to Japan's increasingly disenfranchised electorate and citizens, who have baulked at the build-up in planned defense and security spending, for both economic and political reasons, a backlash against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's bolstering of military hardware and personnel could potentially delay Japan's planned F-35 program.
Nevertheless, the Pentagon has heralded Japan's plans to bolster its air force with the U.S.-made fighter and has said that the new affiliation will further aid Japan and the U.S. with joint security-related endeavors in the Asia Pacific region.
Lockheed Martin, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney and BAE Systems, is keen to work with a myriad of international partners, including Japan, on the F-35 program, and the jet is being developed with additional support from Britain, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Turkey, Australia and Canada.
A great deal of interest in the program has also been shown from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil and India, according to defense analysts with knowledge of the matter, with eight country's committed to buying the jets, including the Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Australia, Norway, Israel, Japan and, more recently, South Korea.
Japan's MOD is particularly eyeing two of the F-35 models for their vertical and short take off and landing ability, and officials here have said that the jet could be used along with ground troops and amphibious vehicles for rapid deployment operations to remote islands off Japan.
The next-generation stealth fighter can also be configured for air-to-air engagements, according to defense analysts, as well as air-to-ground and air-to-sea engagements, and developments have been underway for the fighter to carry next generation weaponry, including the possibility of a solid state laser and a High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW), which is a hypersonic missile, defense experts said.
But the F-35 program has not been without its drawbacks. Structural issues have reportedly affected the plane's ability to land on aircraft carriers and reports have also stated that the jet can not properly deploy British-made air-to-air missiles and has difficulty operating in icy conditions, according to experts.
However, despite ongoing concerns about the jet's initial glitches, Japan's defense ministry is confident in the program and officials here have said that the newly lowered 75 million U.S. dollar per unit price tag - making it more affordable than any fourth-generation fighter - such as the Gripen, Rafale, MiG-35, F- 15 Eagle, or the European Typhoon, is an added incentive to choose the F-35 to be the Air Self-Defense Force's mainstay fighter going into the future.