Japan has not ruled out buying its next-generation fighter jets from a country other than the United States, although it is still feeling out Washington on the possibility of purchasing the latest stealth F-22, a senior official said Thursday.
Japan is expected to select a replacement for its aging F-4 fleet next summer, and the F-22 is one of the top contenders, despite a ban on foreign exports that has been imposed by the U.S. Congress.
"It is essential to gather detailed information on the latest models of fighter jets in other countries in order to carry out an appropriate study of their required performance," chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki said. "We will continue to ask for each country's cooperation in providing information."
Although European models and a domestic prototype are believed to be in the running, Japan is likely to buy from the U.S. because the country is its closest ally and the use of an American-made fighter would foster smoother cooperation in training, maintenance and in the event of actual combat.
Shiozaki said the selection process is still under way, and refused to comment on which fighter is the leading contender. But he acknowledged that Tokyo is keeping its alliance with Washington in mind.
"We have a close alliance with the U.S.," he said. "We are exchanging information."
Still, he said Japan has not ruled out other options.
"We will need to gather information with various possibilities in mind," he said. "Japan will need to independently seek the best option within the given circumstances to protect our nation."
Japan has expressed interest in the F-22 but Congress has repeatedly banned the sale or license of the "Raptor" to any foreign government, largely to safeguard its advanced technology.
Japan is searching for a replacement for its F-4s, in service since 1973.
As one option, Japan is reportedly studying the possibility of developing its own fighter. Other options that have been floated include the U.S. made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-18, advanced F-15s or the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Shiozaki added that the government and ruling party support tighter secrecy laws to protect leaks of information, a key concern in Washington.
Such concerns were aggravated recently when secret information regarding the advanced AEGIS radar system was leaked on computers within Japan's navy. The extent of that leak has not been disclosed, but officials in Tokyo and Washington have voiced the need for greater security.
The F-22 program, estimated at US$70 billion, is among the largest for Lockheed Martin Corp, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Boeing produces the plane's wings, fuselage and other component systems. Pratt and Whitney and other contractors are also involved.
But the Air Force's about-face on how many of the fighters it will buy has put the program in deep jeopardy - after originally saying it would purchase 750 of the planes, the Air Force has cut that number down to 183.