Japan applies to buy fighter Australia rejects
Tom Allard National Security EditorApril 30, 2007
THE United States has responded favourably to Japanese requests to buy the potent F-22 Raptor fighter jet, undermining claims by the Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, that the aircraft was not available for foreign sale.
In February Dr Nelson killed off growing agitation for Australia to seriously consider the F-22, citing a letter from the US Deputy Defence Secretary, Gordon England, stating the F-22 was not for sale.
Soon afterwards, he pushed through the controversial decision to buy 24 Super Hornet jets at a cost of $6 billion.
In recent weeks, Japan and Israel have approached the US to buy the F-22, a long-range fighter that can cruise at supersonic speed, reach extraordinarily high altitudes and has unparalleled stealth and a perfect record in exercises.
Before a visit to Washington this week by the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, a senior US official said the White House was "positively disposed" towards selling the F-22 to Tokyo.
"We're happy to discuss supplying the next-generation fighters to Japan," said Dennis Wilder, the senior director of East Asian affairs at the US National Security Council.
"China is spurring modernisation of its air force and North Korea's missile and nuclear capabilities come as a threat to Japan. All of these explain why Japan's Air Self-Defence Force requested the future-generation fighters."
The F-22 costs about $US136 million ($164 million) each, but remains attractive because of its exceptional performance and clear superiority over even future generations of rival Russian fighters.
For years, the US has been reluctant to let other nations gain access to such a high-tech jet, which it believes gives it a pivotal strategic advantage in the skies for decades to come.
But Loren Thompson, an analyst close to the Pentagon and military contractors, told Reuters there had been a mood shift in senior air force ranks.
"Strategic reasons for selling the plane are becoming compelling," said Mr Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, citing cruise missile defence and the fact that Japan and other nations could help fund a bomber version of the F-22. The bomber version would most appeal to Australia.
Dr Nelson, who was travelling back from Gallipoli, could not be reached for comment but has said recently that he believes the F-22 is not the right plane for Australia.
Labor's defence spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, said: "The Australian Government has egg over its face.
"It's time for the Government to review its own strategy and to push the US hard on the Raptor so it's in the mix when it comes to air capability."
Australia has set aside $15 billion for new fighter jets, and plans to buy about 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which are still in the development phase and could be subject to delays and cost blow-outs.
Fears of such delays prompted Dr Nelson to spend $6 billion on the 24 Super Hornets, a less capable fourth-generation plane, as a stopgap until the F-35s are delivered.
Dr Nelson's declaration that the US would not sell Australia the F-22 came on the eve of a paper from the influential Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Andrew Davies.
The paper urged the Howard Government's consideration of the F-22.
Australia is likely to get a receptive hearing if it asks for the F-22 because it is a close ally, in a formal security alliance with the US and Japan.
Any foreign sale of the F-22 would also require congressional approval.