F-22 fighters for Japan

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If Japan’s long-standing effort to acquire the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor fifth-generation superfighter falls victim to Washington power politics, the United States may inadvertently encourage an Asian arms race over which it may have little control.

It is fortunate for the United States that in what may be the last year a deal is possible, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye and his supporters have decided to lead an effort to reverse a 1998 law barring foreign sale of the F-22.

Through Mr. Inouye’s efforts Japan now knows a slightly degraded export model of the Raptor may take five years to develop and cost about $290 million a plane for about 40, compared to the estimated $150 million the U.S. Air Force pays.

Japan’s long-standing quest to obtain the F-22, however, may be shot down amid the intense political struggle over the F-22s very future. President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have made termination of F-22 production at 187 planes a symbolic goal of their effort to cut defense spending and reorient U.S. military strategy. This has been challenged recently by the House Armed Services Committee, which approved the production of 12 more Raptors, and a Senate committee that approved production of seven more. However, the administration immediately threatened a veto, and the F-22’s opponents are working hard to ensure that production ends in 2011 as currently planned.

After 2011, the F-22’s costs will grow significantly, so Japan and its U.S. supporters have little time to nail down a deal. However, some U.S. officials have long doubted that Japan can afford to pay for the F-22, which is why the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have not seriously promoted the F-22 for Japan. Mr. Gates reportedly favors selling Tokyo the smaller, somewhat less capable and less expensive Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lighting II.

While Japan may also purchase the F-35, there are two important reasons Washington should fully support Japan’s goal to acquire the F-22. First, the F-22 will be the only combat aircraft capable of countering China’s expected fifth-generation fighters. Second, selling Japan the Raptor may become a critical nonnuclear means for Washington to help Japan deter a China on its way to becoming a military superpower by the 2020s. If Washington cannot provide decisive nonnuclear means to deter China, Japan may more quickly consider decisive deterrents such as missiles and nuclear weapons.

Though the Chinese government says next to nothing and the U.S. government says very little, what is known about China’s fifth-generation fighter program is disturbing. Both of China’s fighter manufacturers, the Shenyang and Chengdu Aircraft corporations, are competing to build a heavy fifth-generation fighter, and there are serious indicators China may be working on a medium-weight fifth-generation fighter similar to the F-35. China can be expected to put a fifth-generation fighter on its future aircraft carriers, and it can be expected to build more than 187.

Furthermore, China’s development of anti-access capabilities such as anti-ship ballistic missiles, its buildup of nuclear-missile and anti-missile capabilities and space-warfare weapons will increasingly undermine U.S. strategic guarantees for Japan. China’s development of long-range anti-air and surface-to-air missiles also threatens the electronic support aircraft critical to the “networked” U.S. air-warfare paradigm, meaning that jet fighters could quickly lose force-multiplying radar aircraft, tankers and communication satellites. As such, Japan is correct to prefer the F-22, which reportedly can fly 300 to 400 mph faster and two miles higher than the F-35 — an aircraft optimized for attack, not air-superiority missions.

If Japan is serious about the F-22 and its military security, it will have to pay for both. But if Washington is serious about sustaining a strategic alliance, it should sell the Raptor to Japan and be prepared to do more as China’s military looms larger.

Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, and the author of “China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach,” Praeger, 2008.

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