The full implications for Japan of Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami, as well as the ongoing problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, remain unclear. But an ambitious and likely pricey military programme could be one of the first political casualties as Tokyo weighs the cost of recovery.
In the early 2000s the forerunner to the Japanese Defense Ministry began developing a new, stealthy fighter jet under the auspices of the Advanced Technologies Demonstrator programme. The resulting fighter is known by its nickname ‘Shinshin,’ or ‘Spirit.’
The angular Shinshin, intended to counter China's rising air force, was a backup to Japan's planned purchase of American-made F-22 fighters. When US lawmakers blocked export of the F-22, the Shinshin programme took on more urgency. Since 2009, Tokyo has reportedly invested roughly $500 million in the plane's development, with the apparent goal of replacing all of Japan's current fleet of 200 F-15 fighters sometime after 2016.
But Shinshin development and production could ultimately cost as much as $100 billion, the Defense Ministry told AP. By comparison, the F-22 cost Washington around $60 billion for 187 airplanes. The Shinshin topline might seem exorbitant, but in fact the $100 billion estimate is perfectly reasonable. Owing to high material costs, small production figures and legal prohibitions against arms exports, Japan historically pays at least twice as much for a given weapon system than the United States. The San Francisco-based New Pacific Institute recently published an excellent survey of this cost differential.
All over the world in recent years, fighter programmes have been among the first to be curtailed following expensive natural disasters or domestic unrest. Brazil delayed its planned fighter purchase following January's lethal mudslides. When pro-democracy riots spread to Iraq this spring, Baghdad canceled an initiative to buy F-16s from the United States in order to devote more resources to social programmes. When the cost of tsunami recovery becomes clear, Tokyo might discover it can’t justify a $100 billion investment in airplanes.
This is especially the case considering the availability of alternatives. While the Shinshin could give the Japanese air force an edge over regional competitors such as Russia and China, upgraded models of today's F-15s would probably suffice for continued parity. US manufacturer Boeing has offered a moderately stealthy F-15 model, called the ‘Silent Eagle,’ for an estimated $100 million per copy. Even if Japan demanded local production of the new F-15, therefore raising its price, the Silent Eagle could be had for half the cost of the Shinshin.