World News

EXCLUSIVE - Cost of an F-22 fighter for Japan soars

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force estimates Japan would have to spend as much as $2.3 billion for development of its own version of the premier U.S. fighter jet, Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-22 Raptor.

A U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor prepares to take off at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base on Japan's southwestern island of Okinawa June 16, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

The estimate -- more than twice that used publicly by U.S. officials in the past -- was contained in a U.S. senator’s letter to Japan’s ambassador obtained by Reuters on Monday.

Lockheed is eyeing possible F-22 sales to Japan as a potential way to to extend a production line that is due to start closing soon, absent new orders.

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget request, now under consideration by Congress, would end F-22 production in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

For years, Japan has sought to buy two squadrons of the supersonic F-22, possibly 40 planes, a request that has become more compelling with growing threats from neighboring North Korea.

Foreign sales of the F-22 are banned by a law passed by Congress in 1998 to keep secret the aircraft’s radar-evading “stealth” technology.

In his May 21 letter to Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, Sen. Daniel Inouye, a proponent of sales to Japan who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, said an F-22 deal would benefit both countries. Reuters reported the thrust of Inouye’s letter on June 5 but not the exact figures he cited.

Assuming a deal with Tokyo was concluded in early 2010, engineering development work could start later the same year, Inouye wrote, citing preliminary information and presuming that Congress would lift the export ban.

“The estimate for nonrecurring development and manufacturing costs is $2.3 billion,” he said, without detailing the Air Force’s explanation of the large number.

By contrast, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Kohler had publicly estimated such costs in the $1 billion range before he retired as the Pentagon’s top arms-sale official in September 2007.

A Lockheed spokesman had no immediate comment.

Included would be the cost of “anti-tampering” changes to protect cutting-edge U.S. technology.

The $2.3 billion figure also may reflect a break in production, assuming Defense Secretary Robert Gates succeeds in ending U.S. Air Force purchases after the 187th F-22 rolls off the line in late 2011 or early 2012.

The F-22 counts many fans among lawmakers, with plants or suppliers in 44 states. Lawmakers ultimately decide which programs to fund.

Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, told the Japanese ambassador that the “actual cost” to produce 40 export aircraft would be about $9.3 billion, boosting the total bill to $11.6 billion.

Spreading this over 40 aircraft means an average aircraft cost of $290 million, he said, not including logistics support, spares and training costs.

In a separate letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates dated the next day, Inouye said the Air Force had provided these estimates at the request of the appropriations committees.

“I believe the government of Japan is likely to be interested in purchasing the aircraft even at the relatively high price which has been estimated,” Inouye wrote Gates.

A Japanese embassy official declined to comment on the matter, other than to say the embassy remained in consultation with the Obama administration and Congress in general.

In a related development, the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee moved last week to require an administration report on a possible F-22 export version for Japan.

The House panel, in its version of the 2010 defense authorization bill, would require the report within 30 days after any enactment of the provision, including details of the strategic implications. The report also must outline the “benefit or drawback” of any F-22 exports on the U.S. aerospace industry, the bill said.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force’s top uniformed officer, earlier this month cited “very substantial” timing and technical obstacles to selling F-22s to Japan, including whether the production line would still be open by the time any exports were approved.

“The pragmatic obstacles are very substantial,” he said on June 11. “The technical, legal and timing aspects of this are very significant.”

Top F-22 subcontractors include Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman Corp and United Technologies Corp’s Pratt & Whitney unit, which supplies the engines.