U.S. lawmakers said exploring F-22 version for Japan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee is considering requiring the U.S. Air Force to study the viability of creating an export version of the Lockheed Martin Corp F-22 fighter jet, a source closely following the issue told Reuters on Monday.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jet (front) taxis past a C17 aircraft after landing at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base on Japan's southwestern island of Okinawa May 30, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

“There may be language inserted into the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill that would at least look at the possibility,” said the source, who asked not to be identified since the legislative language is still being finalized.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates in April said the Pentagon would halt production of the radar-evading F-22 fighter at 187 airplanes, after ordering four more aircraft in fiscal 2009 that ends September 30.

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, said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.

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 Lockheed production line is now nearing a shutdown.

Some lawmakers are concerned about the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and are considering adding funding for additional F-22s to the Pentagon’s fiscal 2010 budget request to keep the line running a little longer -- possibly as a “bridge” to an export version.

Thompson, an adviser to several major defense companies, said Japan had expressed a willingness to pay all the costs of modifying the sophisticated fighter jets for export. Analysts say the bill for removing highly classified equipment could be close to $1 billion.

Tokyo argues that it needs a fighter jet like the F-22 to deter an attack against the island nation, and says the fighter would be particularly suited to intercept hostile missiles and aircraft in flight, or destroy them on the ground.

North Korea’s recent missile launches have made the issue topical once again, Thompson said, and the U.S. Air Force had recently reversed its earlier position and concluded that it would be feasible to create an export version of the plane.

Michele Flournoy, defense undersecretary for policy, told reporters last month that possible exports of the F-22 to close allies would be discussed during the Quadrennial Defense Review that just got underway and is due to wrap up by late summer.

Air Force leaders have accepted Gates’ decision to halt production, but Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz last month said the move would pose a “moderate to high risk” if the service needed to fight two wars at the same time.

Thompson said Senator Daniel Inouye, who heads the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, supported selling the advanced air-to-air fighter jets to Japan, and was trying to work toward lifting the ban on F-22 exports.

A spokesman for Inouye said work would not begin until mid to late June on the appropriations bill and declined to comment on specific details.

Greg Kiley, a former aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee, said even an agreement to lift the ban would still leave several hurdles for the F-22 production line.

Kiley said it could take a year to lift the ban on F-22 exports, and any sales agreement with Japan would still take additional time to win approval, given tough U.S. laws on the export of any sensitive military technology.

Then, he said, addition of funding to keep the Lockheed production running in the meantime would require approval by four separate congressional committees, and they had so far not shown much willingness to battle Gates, who recently told Japan that the F-22 was not for sale.

“I just don’t see it happening,” said Kiley, who noted that earlier attempts by Congress to push for F-22 exports had also stalled. To ensure success this time, he said lawmakers would need the strong support of Gates and Lockheed.

Lockheed spokeswoman Nettie Johnson said current law banned exports of the F-22. “Our one customer is the U.S. Air Force and any sales of F-22s to other countries would be determined by the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense and State Department, subject to congressional approval,” she said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn