WASHINGTON – The F-35 stealth jet could be dropped from the list of potential candidates for Japan’s next-generation fighter because lengthy delays have cropped up in its development, according to diplomatic and defense sources.
Instead, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is expected to be picked to replace Japan’s F-15 Eagle fleet, the sources said Thursday.
The F-35 Lightning 2 stealth fighter has long been considered the front-runner.
Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Defense, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that operational testing of the F-35 will begin in spring 2017.
That’s far outside Japan’s goal for taking delivery of its next mainstay fighter by March 2017, which means the F-35 faces being dropped.
Japan has expressed serious interest in the F-35, F/A-18 and the European-designed Eurofighter Typhoon.
The Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces, which place importance on coordination with U.S. forces, could pick the F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter, the sources said.
In his testimony to the Senate committee, Gilmore said the Pentagon launched a full review of the F-35 development program in 2010 due to a sharp delay and a boost in production costs.
Gilmore also hinted at further delays, saying there are many more challenges to be cleared before operational testing can commence.
In April, Tokyo narrowed down its selection to three choices — the F-35, F/A-18 and Eurofighter.
At that time, the government briefed developers about the capabilities and specifications Japan is looking for in the new fighter.
The Defense Ministry is expected to make a selection by the end of this year after receiving proposals from the manufacturers of the three aircraft by late September.
The new aircraft will replace the F-15, developed by McDonnell Douglas, now part of Boeing Co., as Japan’s mainstay fighter and will also replace the aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms, which will be decommissioned.
The U.S. government says the delay in the F-35 development program mainly stems from problems in its operating software program and the aircraft’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities for the U.S. Marine Corps.
The U.S. armed forces plan to procure more than 2,400 of the fighters for $112 million (about ¥9.14 billion) each, a twofold increase from the estimated price in 2001, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The single-seat and single-engine F-35 is currently under development mainly by major defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.
The F-35, which features stealth capability, is to be a multipurpose fighter capable of air support, tactical bombing and air defense missions.
The F-35 is being jointly developed by the United States, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Turkey Norway, Israel and Singapore. Lockheed Martin is the main developer.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet strike fighter, developed by McDonnell Douglas, is a twin-engine multipurpose fighter that can be based on aircraft carriers.
Earlier, Japan expressed hope for acquiring the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter developed jointly by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, but the United States dashed that notion by banning its export and by terminating the F-22 program itself.