Japan-Italy-U.K. fighter plane will challenge U.S. defense industry

Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy have finally made official a merger of their separate but parallel programs to domestically develop a next-generation fighter plane. Earlier dubbed the Tempest in the U.K. and F-X in Japan, it will combine stealth characteristics with powerful sensors, artificial intelligence-enhanced pilot assistance, drone control capability and advanced engines that could eventually power laser weapons. The so-called Global Combat Air Program aims to launch a first flight by 2027 and operational aircraft by 2035. 

The merger is a smart choice for the participating countries given the immense costs and technical risks each country faces bringing such a difficult project to completion alone — earlier estimated to amount at least $48 billion for Japan and around $30 billion for the U.K. For the U.S., it’s a missed opportunity for domestic businesses that ironically stems from a misguided effort to keep technology in American hands. The silver lining is that this foreign collaboration will benefit America’s trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific security alliances.

The silver lining is that this foreign collaboration will benefit America’s trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific security alliances.

Japan in particular wants a jet specialized in rapidly intercepting hostile bombers and defeating enemy fighters in air-to-air combat, as Japan has been approached two or three times daily by China’s larger air force in recent years. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s fleet of non-stealth Typhoon fighters will reach the end of their service lives by the 2040s, which Italy uses as well. 

The U.S.-made F-22 — which, unlike the newer F-35s being procured by all three countries, specialized in air-to-air combat — was exactly what Japan wanted for home defense. But the U.S. missed this opportunity for sales and co-development with Japan for reasons dating back to a quarter century ago. 

In the mid-1990s, revelations that Israel may have shared U.S. fighter technology with China led Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wisc., to sponsor an amendment banning the not-yet-in-service F-22 stealth fighter from being exported. The idea was to avoid the fighter’s state-of-the-art technology ever being leaked by a friend to a potential foe. 

Unfortunately, this contributed to a negative outcome for the U.S. as well as its potential foreign partners. With no hope of building more planes to sell abroad, each F-22 made for the U.S. Air Force had a high unit price. That contributed to the total order being drastically downsized and the production line being closed early. The high costs may also lead to the F-22’s relatively early retirement.

Obey’s one-off amendment was well-intended but misguided in its sweeping scope. It’s true some U.S. defense partners maintain significant partnerships with potential military adversaries or may use U.S. arms in objectionable ways. In such cases, denying export of cutting-edge technologies is not only justified but vital. 

But countries like the U.K. and Japan are closer, more reliable allies with whom the U.S. already regularly shares sensitive technologies and intelligence. It’s unavoidable that some risks in sharing technologies remain, but those risks must be weighed against the benefits.

These begin with the second, implicit objective of the collaborative jet program: to maintain the specialized industrial base and human resources to develop and manufacture jet fighters into the mid-21st century, as those can evaporate without production to keep manufacturers solvent and necessary expertise employed. If that happens, it could become impossible to rebuild domestic fighter production capacity fast enough to respond to a crisis.

If Tokyo, Rome and London can together overcome the admittedly nontrivial hurdles of cooperative development, then they may lower both research and development and procurement costs considerably, and come out with a better overall fighter using the best systems from each country — something that would be cost-prohibitive and have higher risk of failure if they acted on their own.

Now, this does spell some trouble for U.S. defense giants — if the only concern is their bottom line. The merger presumably sidelines Japan’s planned partnership with U.S. firm Lockheed Martin, and a successful Tempest would compete for export orders with U.S. aircraft.

But it’s good for U.S. national security when our allies and partners retain an independent defense technology base rather than allowing their indigenous industries to atrophy.

For starters, competition drives innovation and results in a diversity of technological solutions that reduce vulnerability to unforeseen circumstances than when uniformly relying on a single platform. Even with the United States’ huge defense sector, foreign partners still end up contributing technical solutions to the U.S. military, such as the main guns on the U.S. Patton and Abrams tanks (from the U.K. and Germany), the AT4 anti-tank launcher (from Sweden) and even the Navy’s next-generation frigate (based on an Italian vessel). Having additional options on the market can also deprive U.S. adversaries of export sales, reducing their influence.

The U.S. often has reason to gripe that its partners don’t contribute their fair share to mutual defense.

Furthermore, having multiple manufacturers creates more production capacity across our defense alliances, reducing the obstacles imposed by industrial bottlenecks. For example, while Washington may want to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, U.S. submarine builders barely have capacity to meet U.S. Navy orders. And Poland recently bought tanks and aircraft from South Korea instead of Germany and the U.S. because both apparently had too large a backlog of orders.

Lastly, both the U.S. and its allies find it politically easier to invest in their own defenses when they’re procuring platforms from domestic companies, meaning their payments boost their own economy. That’s a win considering the U.S. often has reason to gripe that its partners don’t contribute their fair share to mutual defense. And for that matter, U.S. companies aren’t losing out entirely: The Defense Department says it’s working with Japan on “autonomous” capabilities (i.e. drones) that could “complement” the new jet.

It’s unfortunate we’re entering a period of heightened tensions in which the risks of conflict compel heightened defense spending. But Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown the risks are real.

This leads to a seemingly contradictory dynamic. The U.S. can advance its own security interests through exports and tech transfers to foreign partners who can be trusted to use such arms defensively. However, Washington’s interests are also served when allies maintain a robust ability to produce their own security goods.

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