‘Building partner capacity’ and its consequences

Joely Santiago/US Air Force

An F-35 Lightning II flies over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., July 14, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Selling F-35s to Japan may not infuriate Beijing as much as Taiwan, but it's arguably more strategically important

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  • There is nothing more critical to reinvigorating US military posture in Indo-Pacific than the F-35

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  • Defense industrial policy can and should be critical parts of US military strategy in Indo-Pacific

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The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper is reporting that the Japanese government is close to settling on the F-35 Lightning as the much-needed replacement for its F-15 fighter.  That’s exceptionally good news for a program that’s both key to preserving American military preeminence and at a lot of risk due to prospective deep defense budget cuts.  Indeed, Japan’s decision may actually complicate the Pentagon’s challenges in meeting the targets laid out by the Budget Control Act, Obama administration policy, and the uncertainties of the sequestration stemming from the failure of the congressional supercommittee to cut a deficit reduction deal.

The Japan deal has been a long time in the making. The Japanese air force has been shopping for a next generation “F-X” fighter to supplant the approximately 140 F-15s that have been Tokyo’s frontline air defense aircraft since the early 1980s. Japan was originally interested in the F-22 Raptor, and was willing to pay a premium price to get it – Japan also paid a premium to be able to build its own version of the F-15 – but the termination of America’s F-22 program in 2009 dashed that hope. The final F-22 is on the production line now.

Even though the F-35 program has been an international effort from its inception, including partners like the Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey, as well as larger allies like Britain, and with a sale to Israel in the works, the Obama administration did not make it easy for Japan to acquire the Lightning. Working out the details of a technology sharing agreement was not easy, and the administration was also hesitant to anger the Chinese.  And make no mistake, Japan’s desire to acquire a stealthy, so-called “fifth-generation” aircraft is driven by fear of China and a strong desire to deepen military ties with the United States as much as any need to replace the aging F-15s. This deal is what the U.S. policy of “building partner capacity” is all about: upgrading the capability to a frontline ally to defend itself and to operate more seamlessly with U.S. forces. Selling F-35s to Japan may not provoke the kind of furious response from Beijing as selling new F-16s to Taiwan would, but it is arguably more strategically and operationally important.

"The F-35 stakes could hardly be higher for the United States. Despite the Pentagon’s budget woes, it cannot walk away from the Lightning."--Thomas Donnelly

The sale of the F-35 to Japan comes at a critical time for the program, as well. The development of the plane has been plagued by the difficulties of settling on final designs and constant restructuring because of shifting Pentagon budgets. Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the chairman and ranking members, respectively, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have made the F-35 the most recent target of their jihad against the defense industry and have rammed through a provision in this year’s defense authorization act – shortly to be on the floor of both houses of Congress – to force the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin into a fixed-price contract. Considering that the F-35 is still in flight test and that defense budgets are in free fall, such a contract is even more foolish than usual. And then there are the F-35 partner nations to consider, not just the current partners, Japan and Israel, but likely future F-35 nations like Australia and South Korea, both soon to make similar fighter buys.

Indeed, there is nothing more critical to reinvigorating U.S. military posture and coalitions in the Indo-Pacific than the F-35 and a few other critical systems (such as the P-8 maritime patrol plane, the C-17 airlifter, the new tanker, the Littoral Combat Ship) that could form the skeletal structure of a de facto future alliance. It’s no surprise that Singapore is seriously considering the F-35 – particularly the “B” model jump jet.  Japan’s initial buy is for about 40 F-35s, but there are likely to be subsequent procurements. Tokyo might also go for the “B” model, which would very much complicate China’s ability to target Japanese airfields with ballistic and cruise missiles. And, once India realizes its recent mistake in purchasing the “fourth-generation” eurofighter, it’s likely that there will be other opportunities.

Defense industrial and technology-transfer policy can and should be critical parts of American military strategy, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. During the Cold War and since, the Pentagon and especially the U.S. Navy and Air Force have designed and built systems for themselves and cared little about equipping allies and partners. Such as the problem of the F-22. Likewise, there were and are sales to be made in the Middle East, but with the rising threat of Iran, these, too, are more about strategy than profit.

The F-35 stakes could hardly be higher for the United States. Despite the Pentagon’s budget woes, it cannot walk away from the Lightning.  There is no substitute for American forces. High-end unmanned systems or a new bomber – indeed, any of the muted substitutes for F-35 – are years if not decades away from being fielded. Nor is there any substitute for America’s allies.  It’s not extreme to say that the commitment to the F-35 is as serious as any other test of American strategic leadership and will to preserve a measure of military technological advantage. 

Or put it this way: Tearing apart the F-35 program – which may already be a result of the Budget Control Act and Obama policy – would be as corrosive a signal of weakness and decline as the withdrawal from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI

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