|Headlines||News Home | Video News | Early Brief | Forum | Opinions | Discussions | Benefit Updates | Defense Tech|
Air Force Plans to Sell F-22As to Allies
Momentum is building within the Air Force to sell the service's prized F-22A Raptor -- which is loaded with super-secret systems -- to trusted U.S. allies, with Japan viewed as the most likely buyer, service and industry officials tell Inside the Air Force.
A Lockheed Martin official heavily involved in the Raptor program told ITAF Feb. 14 that a proposal to alter course and sell the Raptor to Japan is working its way through the Air Force. Lockheed is leading development and production work on the service's newest fighter.
“Right now, [the proposal] is at the three- or four-star level” within the Air Force, the Lockheed official said. “It's not at the highest levels yet . . . to the people who really count -- but it's getting there.”
Several service officials, including a key four-star command chief, that have spoken with ITAF also have confirmed that the notion of selling a yet-undetermined number of Raptors to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) is indeed picking up steam among blue-suited military and civilian decision-makers.
Air Combat Command chief Gen. Ronald Keys told ITAF Feb. 2 after his remarks at a conference in Lake Buena Vista, FL, that service officials are debating the notion of putting the F-22A on the international market. Several service officials, who all requested anonymity, have since said the proposal is gaining strength and working its way through the Air Force's cumbersome bureaucracy.
The revived proposal comes as Lockheed has seen the Air Force dramatically scale back its F-22A program. The service initially intended to purchase 381 fighters, but has since scaled that figure back to just over 180. Overseas sales would help the defense giant swell its shrinking F-22A bottom line.
Several industry officials employed by companies partnering with Lockheed on the multibillion-dollar fighter program contacted by ITAF over the past two weeks also confirmed the notion is picking up steam within the air service.
“I'd say there is definitely a renewed interest to develop an international variant” of the F-22A, a Boeing official told ITAF Feb. 2 at the same Florida conference. Boeing is under contract to develop several Raptor components, including its wings, aft-fuselage and avionics systems, according to a company fact sheet. Boeing also is responsible for 70 percent of the F-22A's mission software as well as other components, the fact sheet states.
Defense officials and military analysts, including Loren Thompson of the Washington-based Lexington Institute, contacted this week all agreed Japan is atop what appears at first glance to be a short list of possible Raptor suitors.
Why would there be so few nations in line to buy what is touted by U.S. officials as the most capable fighter jet in history? Sources pointed to several reasons.
First, a list of the Pentagon's most trusted partners already are heavily invested in the Joint Strike Fighter program, having sunk millions into development work and are preparing to spend a large amount of their respective defense budgets on their own F-35 fleets. And second, China and an increasingly stubborn Russia are pegged by strategic military and political thinkers as the only two nations capable of mounting an air-to-air threat against the American military and its allies. Several analysts said that would mean having an extra squadron or two of the F-22As permanently “bedded down” in the region makes strategic sense for the Pentagon.
A Japanese defense official said Feb. 14 that the Asian nation is very interested in purchasing the F-22A as a replacement for its F-4 aircraft, and confirmed the JASDF has contacted both Raptor-maker Lockheed Martin and the Air Force about buying the fighter.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force currently has four fighter jet models in its fleet -- F-15s, F-4 interceptors, F-2s and F-1s. The JASDF introduced the F-4s in 1973 and has indicated it will begin retiring them some time next decade.
At press time (Feb. 16), the Air Force had not responded to several requests for comment submitted by a reporter over the past two weeks.
The controversial proposal would need the approval of top officials at the Defense and State departments as well as on Capitol Hill. A collective decision to export the fighter would require a change of mind from the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill.
Each Washington entity has for years resisted exporting the Raptor -- even to the coziest of U.S. allies -- based on fears some of the F-22A's most-advanced systems could “migrate” to potential adversaries, especially China. The Asian giant is viewed by many Pentagon officials and military scholars as the most likely nation that could take on the U.S. military in a 20th century-style conventional war.
Air Force officials and military analysts said before the U.S. would agree to export the Raptor to Japan, officials there would have to agree to stipulations that F-22A technologies would not be resold to other nations.
“It's hard to envision the F-22A with its current capabilities being exported, even to our closest allies. Its capabilities would almost certainly have to be ‘watered down' for export,” according to Christopher Bolkcom, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
“Would such an aircraft be attractive to foreign countries? Probably. Would it be priced affordably? That is more difficult to predict,” Bolkcom told ITAF Feb. 14. “Technology transfer will likely be a critical issue” that U.S. policy-makers would have to iron out, he added.
Officials could potentially use another high-profile fighter program as a guide, if they opt to move forward with a plan to put the F-22A on the market, the CRS analyst said. “If the JSF program is able to resolve its technology transfer issues, DOD may have a model -- or at least a precedent -- for the F-22A to follow,” Bolkcom concluded.
Though the F-22A is one of the Pentagon's most-valued -- and most costly -- weapon programs, existing laws place the State Department in charge of approving any sales of U.S. defense systems to other nations, defense officials and analysts were quick to point out this week.
To that end, Lockheed, according to the company official, is merely “waiting for the Air Force and State Department to tell us what to do.”
Meanwhile, the Japanese defense official declined to disclose the list of requirements the JASDF would slap on its potential F-22A fleet. The Lockheed official, however, noted the kinds of missions the self-defense minded Japanese air force would assign its Raptors would differ from the tasks that have been prescribed for U.S. F-22A squadrons.
Because a potential Japanese Raptor force would be focused on patrolling its native skies -- as opposed to waging combat operations in far-away and hostile territories like the U.S. models -- the JASDF could well opt to leave many of the air-to-ground capability upgrades planned for future U.S. models off their fleet, the Lockheed official said.
But overall, the company official said, if U.S. officials clear the way, Lockheed expects to sell Japan a Raptor that is “not that different” from the war planes that will fly with U.S. Air Force markings. “I wouldn't expect a dramatic change” to the fighter's closely held futuristic systems, the Lockheed source said.
As the proposal makes its way through the Pentagon and around Washington, U.S. officials are likely to engage in talks about the implications of putting the intricacies of three of the fighter's most-advanced systems in the hands of another nation -- even a close U.S. strategic partner like Japan, defense observers say.
Thompson of the Lexington Institute said Feb. 14 that defense and State officials, and lawmakers in Congress, are likely to remain hesitant to export three key F-22A systems: its electronic architecture; “aspects of its low-observable” technologies; and its next-generation data links, such as the Tactical Targeting Networking Technology waveform system.
Additionally, another defense analyst who closely follows Air Force programs pinpointed the fighter's electronic attack, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. In recent months, Air Force officials have stepped up their efforts to publicly tout the war plane's ISR capabilities.
It was not immediately clear how Japan would tailor its Raptor requirements, or how much a JASDF-specific F-22A might cost.
The Air Force's “fly away cost” per Raptor is about $130 million, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley told reporters following a Pentagon roundtable late last year. Asked how much the Japanese -- or any allied nation interested in buying the fighter -- likely would have to pay for each jet, the Lockheed official said the company “has shown the Japanese the same kind of [per-aircraft cost] numbers Moseley threw out.”
The Japanese defense official told ITAF Feb. 15 that the JASDF plans to send an official to the United States later this year to discuss its fighter-replacement effort -- and the possibility of buying the F-22A -- with U.S. officials. “So, this year is the most important year for JASDF.”