* Sources describe Sen. Inouye letter to Japan ambassador
* US Air Force said more supportive of possible exports
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON, June 5 The U.S. Air Force estimates
it would cost Japan as much as $250 million per plane to buy
dozens of radar-evading F-22 fighter jets, a U.S. senator told
Japan's ambassador in a letter, saying he hopes to reverse a
current U.S. ban on such exports.
Senator Daniel Inouye, who heads the Senate Appropriations
Committee, said this price included the cost of creating an
export version of the most advanced U.S. fighter, built by
Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N). This assumes production would
begin in four to five years, with deliveries in seven to nine
years, according to two sources familiar with the letter.
Rob Blumenthal, a spokesman for Inouye, confirmed the
senator had sent letters on the F-22 issue to the ambassador,
Ichiro Fujisaki, and to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He
declined to release the letters or discuss their content.
The sources, who asked not to be named since the issue is
still far from decided, said the U.S. Air Force had reversed
its opposition to F-22 exports after studying the issue of F-22
exports again over the past four to six months.
The estimated cost is far higher than the roughly $150
million paid by the Air Force for its last batch of fighters,
but the price tag would come down considerably if Congress
decides to add funding for more U.S. F-22s to the fiscal 2010
budget, the sources said.
"That would help quite a bit because it would avert the
cost of restarting the production line once it had stopped,"
said one of the sources.
Gates in April said the Pentagon would halt production of
the F-22 fighter at 187 airplanes, after ordering four more in
fiscal 2009 that ends Sept. 30.
Top Air Force officials say they support Gates' decision
given budget constraints, but had pushed in the past for as
many as 60 more, or a total of 243.
Creating an export version of the F-22 fighter would also
keep the door open to a possible resumption of F-22 production
for the U.S. Air Force in the future.
Japan for years has expressed interest in buying two
squadrons of its own F-22s, which could translate into orders
of 40 to 60 more airplanes for Lockheed.
Foreign sales of the F-22 fighter are banned under an
amendment by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey
that was passed in 1998, but recent North Korean missile
launches and continued interest by Japan in buying the F-22 may
be softening congressional opposition, particularly since the
F-22 production line is now nearing a shutdown.
The sources cited growing support for dropping the export
ban, noting that tens of thousands of jobs were at stake around
"There's decent support, but it's not a slam-dunk," one
The source said it might be easier now to drop the export
ban, given recent missile development activity by North Korea,
the U.S. recession and strong U.S. ties to Japan.
Loren Thompson, analyst with the Lexington Institute, this
week said Japan had expressed a willingness to pay the cost of
modifying the sophisticated fighter jets for export.
Analysts say the bill for removing highly classified
equipment could be close to $1 billion, but the prestige of
owning and operating the world's top fighter jet could make it
a worthwhile investment for Tokyo.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)