* Japan, U.S. stress tight ties after death of North Korean
* Decision a shot in the arm for F-35 programme
* Choice a major setback for Boeing
By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO, Dec 20 Japan picked Lockheed
Martin's F-35 jet as its next mainstay fighter on
Tuesday, choosing the aircraft over combat-proven but less
stealthy rivals, as concern simmers over North Korea and as
China introduces its own stealth fighters.
The decision came as Japan and the United States stressed
that their security alliance was tight in the face of worry
about an unstable North Korea after the death of its leader, Kim
Defence Minister Yasuo Ichikawa said the decision to buy 42
of the stealth aircraft, valued by analysts at more than $7
billion, would help Japan adjust to a changing security
environment after Monday's announcement of the death of the
69-year-old North Korean leader.
"The security environment surrounding future fighter jets is
transforming. The F-35 has capabilities that can firmly respond
to the changes," Ichikawa told reporters.
Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon hailed Japan's selection of
the F-35, saying it would help establish a strategic,
conventional deterrent in the Asia-Pacific region, where concern
simmers about instability under Kim's successor, his untested
youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
"The F-35 Program Office looks forward to strengthening
partnerships with Japan, and contributing to enhanced security
throughout the Asia Pacific region," the Pentagon said in a
statement after Japan announced its decision.
The F-35, which is in an early production stage, competed
against Boeing's F/A-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon, made
by a consortium of European companies including BAE Systems
Experts said the decision to opt for the U.S. plane, made
informally well before news of Kim's death, reflected Japan's
desire to tighten U.S. ties in the face of concern over China's
rising military might and other regional uncertainties.
"It reflects Japan's recognition on a variety of levels that
at a time of greater insecurity, it needs to be more deeply
engaged with the United States on security issues," said Brad
Glosserman, executive director at Honolulu's Pacific Forum CSIS.
In a sign the allies meant to stand together, U.S. President
Barack Obama spoke by telephone to Japanese Prime Minister
Yoshihiko Noda and underscored the U.S. commitment to its
allies, the White House said.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news
conference that Washington and its two close Asia allies, Japan
and South Korea, were likely to hold high-level talks on North
Korea soon. "The date has not been decided but it will be at the
soonest possible opportunity," he said.
U.S.-Japan relations had frayed after the novice Democratic
Party of Japan took power in 2009 for the first time, vowing to
recalibrate the alliance on a more equal basis and attempting,
unsuccessfully, to keep a pledge to move a U.S. military base
off Japan's Okinawa island.
Noda, who took office last September, has firmly shifted
gears back to a more traditional security stance.
"Once again, Japan's security policy is right back to the
post-war Japanese mainstream -- the decision that the U.S. is
Japan's best security partner," Glosserman said.
Japan had been widely expected to choose the F-35 due to its
advanced stealth capability and U.S. origin. Stealth technology
has drawn much attention in Japan since China, which has a
long-running territorial dispute with Japan, in January
confirmed it had held its first test flight of the J-20 stealth
Despite Sino-Japanese tension over territorial feuds,
maritime resources and a bitter wartime past, Noda will
nonetheless be seeking China's cooperation in coping with North
Korea when he visits Beijing on Dec. 25-26.
"Instructions from the prime minister were that we need to
establish close cooperation and exchange of information with the
United States, South Korea and China, so we will seek to work
with China on this understanding," Fujimura said.
BOOST FOR LOCKHEED MARTIN
Japan's choice of the F-35 comes as a shot in the arm for
Lockheed Martin's F-35 programme, which has been restructured
twice in the past two years and is expected to boost the odds
that South Korea will follow suit with its own order for 60
fighters. Japan will pay 9.9 billion yen per fighter including
backup parts in the initial stage of procurement.
"This programme badly needed an endorsement like this,
particularly one from a technically respected customer. But
there are still many complications, especially price tag and
work share demands," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the
U.S.-based Teal Group.
He said the F-35 programme was facing scrutiny from U.S.
lawmakers and officials who need to trim hundreds of billions of
dollars from the defense budget over the next decade.
Boeing's loss of the order would be a real setback for the
company's prospects in the fighter business, especially since
there were few other large competitions open anymore, said Loren
Thompson of Lexington Institute.
"The market place is signaling to Boeing that its days in
the fighter business may be numbered," Thompson said.
Japanese firms Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd ,
IHI Corp and Mitsubishi Electric Corp will
participate in the production and maintenance of the F-35, the
Defense Ministry said.
A Lockheed Martin official said Japanese defence
contractors could become global suppliers to the F-35 stealth
fighter programme if Japan's government decided to ease a
decades-old ban on exports of military equipment.
"The Japanese aerospace industry is world class, so if there
was a relaxation (of the export ban) it would be very logical
for them to have the opportunity and indeed it would be a very
good opportunity to participate in the F35 global supply chain,"
Dave Scott, director of international business development for
the stealth fighter, told Reuters.
Japan is considering easing the export ban, a step that
might allow its contractors to bid for contracts in the United
States, which spends 10 times as much on its military.
Ending the ban would also allow Japan to buy aircraft,
ships, missiles and other equipment more cheaply by allowing
domestic manufacturers to tap overseas markets and lower
production costs through economies of scale.