The Diplomat speaks with Joshua Walker, a fellow at the Truman National Security Foundation and Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, about reports that Japan has selected the F-35 as its new next generation fighter aircraft.
News reports suggest that Japan has agreed to purchase the F-35 fighter from the United States. From a broad military standpoint, how much will this enhance Japan’s defensive capabilities? Is this move in anyway a counter to China’s roll-out last year of the J-20 fighter?
I think from a purely technical point of view, this deal is still very modest. However, symbolically this deal is quite important from a broader strategic focus. As the first major partner for the F-35, which is seen as the next generation cutting age fighter, it would allow Japan to have an edge over an ever-expanding and spending rival like China. It’s not necessarily a counter to the Chinese, because of the time involved and the numbers being discussed, but it broadens Japan’s strategic and technological horizons. More importantly it reinforces the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is absolutely central and critical to Japanese grand strategy in the Asia Pacific, particularly vis-a-vis China.
In your view, were there any key aspects of the F-35 that tipped the balance against the F-18 or the Euro-Fighter? Did any of the possible reports of possible building of components in Japan, as well as rumors of some technology sharing, play a role?
I’m actually not aware of the details here, but certainly the cost-sharing and reports of components being produced in country make a lot of sense and fit with the new, more assertive Japan.
How does the F-35 purchase enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance? Do you see opportunities of joint training and exercises with the aircraft? How does this plane enhance the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force in terms of its capabilities, missions it can conduct etc?
In terms of the U.S.-Japan alliance, I think here is where the F-35 will be the biggest deal. The fact that Japan was the first to sign on and the level of cooperation (joint exercises and training) this indicates with convergent technology is very important both strategically and symbolically.
The F-35 will be a major boon for the Japanese Air Force, which has seen more responsibility over the years as China’s actions have taken on more aggressive prisms as seen from Tokyo. The general mood in Tokyo is more hawkish, particularly in the bureaucracies that tend to matter more than any other areas, and this is one manifestation of that. Having the better quality fighter and technology is important for the Japanese psyche in an environment in which China’s overwhelming quantity continues to overwhelm many in the region.
Will other nations in the region respond to the move? Do you think this may lead other countries to consider the aircraft, such as South Korea? Could this lead to more fighter purchases in the region to keep up with Japan’s purchase?
I think from a business point of view, Japan’s decision makes the F-35 a more attractive option given the cost-sharing dimensions of such an expensive joint venture. I don’t think Japan buying a few more airplanes means others will try to keep up since again, when it comes to sheer quantity, it’s more about China as the regional hegemon and no longer Japan. However, in terms of alliance maintenance and symbolism, this deal could be the beginning of other countries, particularly like-minded democracies that are U.S. allies being more likely to select the F-35 over the other options out there.
However, Japan by itself won’t be consequential – it’s more how the private business side of things is able to use this announcement and how it will shape perceptions or strategic balances and re-alignment. In this regard, Obama’s visit to Asia and the announcement in Australia about the U.S. basing re-alignment that has been ongoing for some time, and which is now beginning to pick up some traction on [Capitol] Hill, will be very important and consequential. The model seems to be more burden-sharing with allies and smaller bases that are co-owned by host and American forces. This is very significant in terms of creating more of a trip-wire phenomenon where better/faster/stealthier planes like the F-35 would be a centerpiece.
So, if taken in combination with America’s basing re-alignment decision, Japan’s announcement of the F-35 would be very consequential.
There has been speculation India may also consider a purchase of the F-35. Do you see this as a possibility?
No, I really don't. I think India isn’t going to abandon the Euro-fighter project and at this point it only needs to have planes that are better than their rivals and not anything else. Therefore, other older models seem to serve the Indian Air Forces needs at this point. Having the best and being at the cutting edge isn’t a priority for India in the way it is for Japan is the general sense I get from my Indian colleagues. Now, there’s a possibility that a few years down the line, depending on how the F-35 turns out, they might be interested. But that goes back to larger strategic questions that will depend on things far beyond the purview of Tokyo’s recent announcement.