Japan’s F-35 Gamble
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

Japan’s F-35 Gamble


Japan, like a number of other U.S. allies and the U.S. military itself, has just signed up to procure the F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, built primarily by Lockheed Martin. Experts are already questioning whether the F-35 was the right choice for Japan, and this debate is sure to inform the decisions of other countries in the Asia-Pacific that are seriously considering buying F-35s of their own. Australia has already signed onto the F-35 program, but is having second thoughts. Singapore is due to announce its decision on whether to procure the aircraft in 2012, while South Korea is set to deliver its verdict by October of that year. India, too, is being targeted by Washington as a future customer for the aircraft.

The make-or-break questions that these countries will now be asking are:

How much does an F-35 really cost? The answer is that it depends who you ask. A Lockheed Martin spokesman said the day before the Japanese procurement was announced that: “The average recurring flyaway cost of an F-35A, in 2010 economics, is approximately $65 million.” But hours later, the Japanese Ministry of Defense confirmed that it was paying JPY8.9 billion ($114 million), or JPY9.9 billion ($127 million) including spares, for each F-35. It’s unclear why the two figures are so far apart, but it’s easy to understand why potential partners like Australia have lost trust in the numbers.

When will our F-35s be delivered? Japan took a conscious gamble on the F-35: it bought an aircraft that’s still in development as a replacement for an ageing fleet of F-4s which need to be retired within the next few years. An MoD spokesperson confirmed that the first 12 of Japan’s 42 F-35s will be procured within the current Mid-Term Defense Program, which runs from 2011 to 2015; and that it’s expecting to get its first four planes in 2016 off the shelf from Lockheed. The last 30 aircraft will be acquired from 2016 onwards “according to the pace of retirement of F-4 fighters and the fiscal conditions,” the MoD spokesperson said. The Lockheed Martin spokesman provided the following assurance: “By 2016 the F-35 will be into the eighth year of production so deliveries to Japan are assured.”

Tokyo certainly appears to have built some flexibility into its F-35 program by planning a very gradual introduction for its fleet. But already even this conservative schedule appears uncertain. Earlier this month, the head of the F-35 program, Vice Admiral David Venlet, said that F-35 production needed to be slowed down, not ramped up, in order to fix “hot spots” – i.e. flaws – with the design of the airframe. With the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, Australia (probably) and Israel already in the queue for F-35 deliveries, it’s hard to place too much faith in the promised delivery times in light of Venlet’s call for delay. Japan had better hope that its old F-4s have a few extra years left in them.

Will our own defense industry benefit? For countries that didn’t sign up to be original F-35 partners, technology sharing isn’t guaranteed. The Japanese MoD had this to say: “With regard to 38 aircraft which will be acquired in or later than JFY 2017, the fuselage manufactured through the participation of Japanese industry is planned to be acquired.” This sounds like assembly, not real technical involvement. The situation leaves Japan with a huge dilemma. It either faces the terminal decline of its aerospace sector, or it must invest heavily in developing its own stealth fighter – a project deemed so costly that analysts have questionedwhether it could ever really succeed. Furthermore, the expensive F-35 procurement would cease to make much sense if Japan goes on to build an advanced fighter of its own.

Despite all these concerns, would the F-35 give us a real capability edge? Potential buyers need to think carefully what they want to buy the aircraft for. As Christopher Hughes has already discussed here, the F-35 is a great offensive weapon for penetrating air defenses and striking targets inside enemy territory. Matching that specialty to our list of prospective Asian buyers, it sounds like a smart option for South Korea, and perhaps for India; but the case for Australia and Singapore, for which defensive rather than offensive capabilities are the priority, is less compelling.


Japan identified the F-22 Raptor as the ideal aircraft for its fighter requirement. But when the U.S. stonewalled over Raptor exports, the Japanese F-X program struggled to adjust. In the end it chose the F-35 for two simple reasons: it looked more like the F-22 than the other contenders; and it was unable to countenance, in any serious way, buying a non-U.S. option. The other buyers in the Asia-Pacific aren’t bound by these constraints. The F-35 may well prove to be the right solution for them; but it’s becoming a much closer call than, just a few years ago, many governments would have imagined. 

February 21, 2012 at 06:27

Ha, well I got my piscloi degree, but it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on, so I’m studying something more useful and interesting; graphic design. I should be done in another year or two.

December 22, 2011 at 19:27

“but it’s easy to understand why potential partners like Australia have lost trust in the numbers.”

I’m sorry but that statement is wrong, Australia hasn’t lost trust.
Australia still allows for it’s 100 unit buy to average out to $75m in 2008 year dollars including price buffers, as per DMO
Australia is told by USA that the URF price will be $68m in 2010 year dollars

Japan is classed as a foreign military sale [FMS] and Australia is a partner, that is a difference to cost and there may be more included in Japans $114m than the URF price and FMS fees.

December 22, 2011 at 02:29

I suspect Australia sees the best form of defence in taking the attack to the enemy. It has taken part in both Gulf Wars flying combat missions in order to be seen as part of the Western Allies.

Oneday it might be Oz needing help.

December 21, 2011 at 23:47

John Chan,

I never thought I would say this but for once I actually agree with you. I think 400 might be a lot just for Japan (although I wish that were possible) because their diplomatic standing allows for an assumption that if they ever had to use thier F-35s there would be other countries in the fight on their side that would suppllement Japan’s forces.

I disagree with the author, however, in his statement that the F-35 is not right for Australia. He is right that Australia needs to be concered with defensive equipment. How is an F-35 loaded with anti-ship missiles to keep adverse navies away from their cost not a defensive posture?

The beauty of the F-35 is that it as all rounder in both offense and defense.
And no, I do not work for Lockheed, but this is an amazing airplane despite even with the gowing pains that all other fighters experienced in their early stages.

December 21, 2011 at 17:19

Expert wrote:

December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm

@ Liang1a

> it means China can deploy 4 J-20 for each F-35 Japan can deploy. And there is simply no overwhelming superiority of the F-35 over the J-20.

Expert’s response:
There is a slight little problem; Chinese pilots are poorly trained relative to Japanese pilots.

Liang’s response:
Expert claims that Japanese pilots are better trained than Chinese pilots. But this is actually not true because Chinese pilots spend more time flying than Japanese pilots. According to one Chinese article, Chinese pilots spend as much time flying as American pilots. Chinese fighter pilots flying 4th generation fighters such as J-10, J-11, Su-27, and Su-30 fly at least 200 hours/year. Those who are in main battle elite squadrons fly as much as 240 hours a year. This is about the same as American fighter pilots who fly between 200 to 250 hours/year according to one source. Japanese pilots fly fewer hours at only some 180 hours/year. The S. Korean pilots fly even fewer hours at only 150 hours/year. The Chinese mainland fighter pilots have in recent years gained superiority over Taiwan pilots in mock dog-fight battles when they meet. Chinese pilots are also dominant over S. Korean fighter pilots and the Japanese as well. Chinese fighters in J-10, J-11, Su-27 and Su-30 are all superior to F-15 and F-16. And the Chinese fighter pilots are superior to the fighter pilots of all its neighboring countries. Even American pilots now are no match for the Chinese pilots.

Therefore, it is nothing more than empty bragging for Expert to say that Chinese pilots are poorly trained. It is the Japanese pilots who fly fewer hours and receive less training than the Chinese pilots.



According to NATO standards, 120 hours/year flight training time can enable the pilot to improve the utilization of their own fighters. Our country’s 3rd generation (4th generation in Western classification) pilots now average flight time of 200 hours/year; main battle units about 240 hours/year , reaching the average standard of America (transport, bombers and such big planes and helicopter pilots’ flight time exceeds those of fighter pilots. America has more of these kinds of planes, its military also often participate in wars). 2nd generation (3rd generation in Western classification)pilots average only 120 hours/year due to the operational constraints of the planes. Overall, because there are more 2nd generation planes, our pilots average 165 hours/year. Compared with this, the Japanese 3rd generation (4th generation in Western classification) planes average flight time of 180 hours/year, overall it is 160 hours/year. S. Korea is 150 hours/year.
Expert wrote:

December 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Based on Japanese observations of Chinese jets near the Senkaku Islands, most Chinese pilots are poorly trained and many can’t even fly straight. Chinese pilots pose themselves as a threat to Japanese patrol aircraft countering them, not because of missile lock-on or combat manuvers, but because their flight path is unpredictable.

Liang’s response:
Provide us with a link where it said Japanese pilots made such statements. It is obviously nothing more than Expert’s lies. Furthermore, Expert is saying that Chinese planes had often “lock-on” the Japanese planes with their fire control radars. When a fire control radar locked onto a target the chance of hitting the target is very high especially if the distance is close – “no escape zone”. Therefore, when a Chinese fighter locks onto a Japanese fighter with its fire control radar then it means it has killed that Japanese fighter. If more Chinese fighters lock onto Japanese fighters with their fire control radar in casual mock dog fights during peace time then it means in a real battle the Chinese fighters would be able to destroy the Japanese fighters decisively.

Therefore, it is as I said that Chinese fighters are better trained and better equipped with superior planes, superior radars, superior avionics, and superior missiles. In a real fight the Japanese fighters will have no chance of survival. The only way they can survive is to stay on the ground and leave the sky to the Chinese fighters.

China’s PL-12 air to air missile has a no escape zone of 45 km (look up) and 35 km (look down) against target with RCS of 3 sq meters. Since F-15 and F-16 have radar cross section of 25 sq. m and 5 sq.m respectively, they will be easily tracked and killed by China’s PL-12 missiles within 35 km to 45 km with almost absolute certainty.

F-15 25 sq. m
F-16 5 sq. m
F-35 / JSF 0.005 sq. m
F-22 0.0001 sq. m
J-20 RCS: 0.1 to 0.001 meter sq

John Chan
December 21, 2011 at 16:02

Canada bought 65 F-35 at 145 million apiece, and with same amount of money for support and maintenance. The prices is only for reference only, there is no cap on the price at the delivery, it caused a firestorm in Canada.

Mind you Canada is one of original members contributing into R&D for the F-35 and the only one of the hard-core steadfast supporter of F-35. Japan has neither contributed to the R&D nor a steadfast supporter of F-35, for Japan to get better price than Canada seems daydreaming.

Even Canada ordered 65 F-35, what’s good of 42 F-35 for Japan facing unfriendly neighbour like Russia, S.Korea and China? Japan should at least order 400 F-35.

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