TOKYO, July 3 (Reuters) - Japan is eyeing moves in the U.S. Congress aimed at extending production of Lockheed-Martin Corp’s radar-evading F-22 Raptor fighter, which has raised hopes Tokyo may be allowed to buy a plane previously banned from export.
Here are some questions and answers about the F-22.
WHAT IS THE F-22?
Described by one analyst as the “Ferrari” of jet fighters, Lockheed-Martin Corp’s (LMT.N) F-22 is widely considered the most advanced fighter plane in use today. Almost invisible to radar, it also boasts high-tech intelligence gathering equipment. But the state-of-the-art package comes at a steep price — the U.S. paid more than $140 million per plane, not including development costs. Japan might pay an estimated $250 million per aircraft — a total of $10 billion if it bought 40 planes.
Critics say the F-22, which has not been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, is a relic of Cold War military strategy.
Japan’s fleet of F-4 jet fighters, whose design dates back to the 1960s, is ageing and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Replacing the fleet with F-22s could potentially enable Japan to evade North Korean defences and gather information about its secretive neighbour. It would also enable Japan to maintain a technological edge over China’s rapidly expanding military. Some analysts say Japan may view the fate of the F-22 deal as a symbol of its U.S. alliance, about which many have doubts as China grows in importance. Others say Japan simply wants what it sees as “the best.”
Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party, which polls show has a good chance of taking power at an upcoming election, says it needs more information before deciding whether the F-22 is value for money.
WHY HAS THE UNITED STATES AVOIDED EXPORTING THE F-22?
A 1998 law passed by Congress banned foreign sales of the Raptor to keep secret the aircraft’s radar-evading “stealth” technology. Past leaks of confidential information from Japan’s Defence Ministry have underscored such concerns. But the prospect that production of the F-22 may soon end, affecting jobs in many parts of the United States, has prompted a push among U.S. lawmakers to develop an export version that could be sold to Japan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, has repeatedly said he wants to cap production at 187 aircraft, the last of which would roll off the production line in late 2011 or early 2012.
The F-35, being developed by a consortium of countries and to go into full production by Lockheed-Martin in 2014, may be one of the most realistic options. In some ways less advanced than the F-22, it is also far cheaper at about $60 million for a basic model.
A team from BAE Systems BAE.L visited Japan in June to promote the rival Eurofighter Typhoon, developed by a European consortium, but critics point out that the aircraft is already somewhat dated.
Analysts say Japan’s history of producing under licence from U.S. companies makes it less likely to pick a European option, though the Typhoon would be considerably cheaper than the F-22, at about $100 million per plane.
Boeing’s (BA.N) F-15 might also be an option for Japan. Boeing is seeking partners to develop a “stealth” version of the plane. (Additional reporting by Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson)