The Diplomat speaks with Christopher Hughes, professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies at the University of Warwick, about Japan's recent decision to purchase the U.S. F-35 fighter aircraft.
Japan has selected the F-35 as its next generation fighter aircraft. What do you think led to this decision over other possible choices like the Eurofighter or F-18?
The first reason that the Japanese government may claim, but which I think is one of the least convincing, would be the capabilities of the F-35 over the F-18 and Eurofighter. The F-35 is supposed to replace the F-4, which is essentially an interceptor/air superiority fighter, and this is the kind of role that the F-X (project) is necessary for, especially if the aim is to ensure Japanese air defense against Chinese fighters like the J-20. The F-18 and especially the Eurofighter could easily fulfill this kind of role, whereas the F-35 is perhaps not ideally suited to this role.
For sure, the F-35 is a very capable aircraft (or should be whenever it goes into service), but it isn't the F-22, and the Eurofighter could certainly match anything that Russia and China has and perform an F-22 type of role. Moreover, the F-35 is really designed because of its stealth capabilities for air defense penetration and for delivering precision guided munitions. So it isn't really an air superiority fighter. Its stealth capabilities might be attractive to Japan, but again these are less important for air defense. The Eurofighter, although lacking stealth, is designed to counter an adversary's stealth capabilities. So if the mission and defense requirement as declared by the Japanese Ministry of Defense is for an F-4 replacement with F-4 roles, then the F-35 is probably not the ideal aircraft.
The F-35 is also not ideal in terms of providing Japan with domestic industrial fighter production to help preserve its defense industry. Japan probably would have been allowed to build and develop indigenously nearly the entire set of technologies for the F-18 and Eurofighter. It looks like Japan may get some domestic build on the F-35, and this will provide some useful technological learning, but it will be quite minimal compared to the Eurofighter or F-18.