Two critical political "dogfights" are underway in Washington that could help determine the speed with which Japan may have to make a critical decision on whether to acquire a decisive means of deterrent, quite possibly a nuclear deterrent.
The first dogfight is between the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration over whether to continue production of the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor 5th generation super-fighter. A second and related dogfight is whether a group of Congressmen led by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii can persuade Congress to change a law preventing foreign sales of the F-22, so that Japan could then purchase an export version of this fighter.
Amid the constantly competing headlines out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Latin America, Israel and Russia, very few in Washington are aware of the F-22’s political dogfights, and very few are thinking of the consequences of failing to sell the F-22 to Japan. At first glance, the F-22’s chances of political survival are not great. President Barak Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have made ending F-22 production at 187 fighters their most important policy change to prove they can control U.S. military spending and strategy. Gates contends that 187 Raptors is enough for the U.S. Air Force and that money is instead needed to fight "the wars of today" not "the wars of tomorrow." However, support for the F-22 remains strong within the U.S. Air Force, even though Gates fired the USAF leadership in 2008 in part for its support for the F-22.
The U.S. Senate has only approved 7 more F-22s while the U.S. House of Representatives approved 12 more—but only after a Republican amendment added to a bill at 3AM in the morning. Top Democrat and some Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress are rising to oppose the additional Raptors and immediate threats to veto the Defense funding bill by the White House and by Gates prove they are serious about defending their policy prerogatives.
Senator Inouye’s attempt to reverse a 1998 law barring export of the F-22 may stand a greater chance of passage, if only because it does not push for continued F-22 production. However, Secretary Gates reportedly favors selling the smaller less capable Lockheed Martin F-35 to Japan, and he may actively oppose Senator Inouye’s initiative. But the ability of the U.S. to offer Japan a re-designed export version at an estimated price of $290 million a plane only works if a deal can be reached before 2011, when the 187 Raptors will be built. Expenses for redesigning an export version of the F-22, and the expected small production run, perhaps 40 aircraft, means Japan’s Raptors will cost almost twice some estimates of what they cost for the U.S. Air Force.
So, are 40 or so very expensive F-22 fighters worth the additional political costs to Japanese of entering a complex Washington battle that divides the Congress and challenges the Obama Administration’s control of U.S. defense policy? For this analyst the answer is a definite yes. The F-22 is the only combat aircraft built anywhere that can offer Japan the non-nuclear capability sufficient to deter China, and perhaps even North Korea. If Japan cannot get the F-22 that will only accelerate the day Japan must make far more fateful decisions about its security, such as whether to invest in far more powerful offensive weapons, like nuclear submarines or even nuclear weapons.
If Japan could reach a quick agreement on a F-22 sale, they would be entering Japanese Air Self Defense Force squadrons at about the same time that China will be starting to test its expected 5th generation fighters. Both of China’s main fighter companies, the Chengdu and Shenyang Aircraft Corporations are competing to build China’s heavy-weight 5th generation fighter, and there remains a good chance that China’s Air Force will buy both models to sustain industrial capacity. In addition, there are indicators that China is also working on a medium-weight 5th generation fighter program, perhaps even similar to the Lockheed Martin F-35. China will also quickly put its 5th generation fighters on its expected conventional and nuclear powered aircraft carriers. Available open sources indicate that China is investing heavily in the advanced stealth, engine, radar and electronic technologies needed for 5th generation fighters. China will surely build more than 187 5th generation fighters.
So if Secretary Gates thinks the F-35 would be good for Japan, why should it take the high political risk of seeking the F-22? Simply put, the revolution in high technology aerial combat capabilities is forcing a revival of the air superiority fighter. Since the 1980s the U.S. has led the way in building "networked" air forces in which radar and electronic warfare aircraft vastly increased battlespace awareness leading to a reduced need for the fastest and most maneuverable fighters. Japan has copied the U.S. by investing in expensive aircraft to support its fighters. But advanced missiles and counter-radar capabilities being developed by Russia and China are creating a real threat to the U.S. networked warfare paradigm. Their new and future long-range anti-air missiles could quickly take out U.S. and Japanese long-range sensor aircraft while Chinese anti-satellite weapons threaten vital communication links. This plus the emergence of Russian and Chinese 5th generation fighters all serves to revive the importance of raw fighter capability and pilot skill.
The U.S. Air Force intended the F-22 and the less expensive F-35 to complement each other. The F-22 was intended to achieve air superiority so the F-35 could undertake critical attack missions. In terms of raw performance, the F-22 can fly about 25 percent faster, and over 4km higher than the F-35. The F-22 can also "supercruise," meaning it can fly longer at supersonic speeds without using fuel-guzzling engine afterburners, which gives it a major advantage. In an air combat scenario in which you lose your electronic support aircraft and communication satellites, you are then relying on the absolute performance of your combat aircraft, so which one would Japan want its pilots to be flying, the best or the second best?
So it is not an exaggeration to observe that for Japan, the F-22 could serve as a decisive non-nuclear deterrent against China. If China cannot be assured of air superiority over the disputed regions of the East China Sea, it will be less tempted to challenge Japan militarily. This is the bottom line: if Japan can prevent future wars with China by buying the F-22, it will have been well worth the price.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Arlington, Virginia, and the author of China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach, Praeger, 2008.