* Japan Aerospace 2016 air show kicks off in Tokyo on
* Decision on new F-3 jet fighter key for industry, military
* Japan's last domestic jet fighter seen as expensive
By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo
TOKYO, Oct 11 Faced with a growing North Korean
threat and expanding Chinese power, Japan's military and
aerospace industry will use this week's airshow in Tokyo to push
the case to develop a highly advanced, and costly, stealth
The new fighter, dubbed the F-3, will serve as a key
component of Japanese air power in the coming decades and could
cost Asia's second biggest military as much as $40 billion,
depending on its specifications.
Tokyo faces a crunch choice between ordering an
industry-pleasing advanced stealth fighter or opting for a
cheaper conventional combat jet that will deliver a bigger bang
for taxpayers' yen.
In March, Japan's Ministry of Defence issued a request for
information (RFI) to gauge interest among foreign aerospace
companies for jointly developing the F-3, which would operate
alongside Lockheed Martin's new F-35s and older F-15s.
"It cuts to the core of the future of Japanese defence
industry," said an industry source, who asked not to be
identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
"The rising threat from China and most immediately North Korea
no longer supports a relaxed industrial base. There is now a
premium on actual capability."
North Korea's nuclear tests and recent rocket tests,
particularly the apparent successful launch in June of an
intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile, have spooked
Tokyo is also dealing with record encounters with Chinese
military jets in the skies around disputed islands in the East
A final decision on the project is expected by early 2018.
The strongest supporters of a cheaper conventional aircraft
are officials close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said the
sources. Abe's government has reversed a decade of defence cuts
with spending reaching record levels. However, those increases
are a fraction of the extra China is spending every year on its
A cheaper fighter programme would free up funding for other
purchases and a lower cost jet that other nations could afford
opens up the prospect of overseas sales that would further lower
unit costs for Japan's Self Defence Force.
Pushing for a more advanced fighter are defence ministry
bureaucrats and local companies seeking to secure jobs, underpin
defense industry supply chains and compensate for business lost
to U.S. defence industry suppliers.
Proponents aim to build a jet more advanced than the U.S.
Lockheed's F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, said another of the
A decade ago, the U.S. government refused to sell the Raptor
to Japan after it deemed the technology too sensitive even for
its closes Asian ally.
Japan's last domestic fighter jet, the F-2, which the F-3
will replace, is widely regarded as an expensive failure. Based
on F-16 it was built two decades ago by Mitsubishi Heavy
Industries and Lockheed.
It was the world's first production aircraft built with
composite carbon fibre wings, but cracks in the composite
plagued the program.
An initial plan to produce 141 jets was pared down with less
than 100 entering service, costing around four times that of an
equivalent off-the-shelf fighter.
FISHING FOR IDEAS
Ahead of the defence ministry's RFI, Mitsubishi Heavy tested
a prototype jet, dubbed the ATD-X, showcasing numerous stealth
technologies. The RFI, however, does not specify what type of
aircraft Japan wants, said the sources.
"The request is very vague," said another industry official
who saw the document. It may be an attempt by Japan to fish for
ideas while it mulls its choice between an expensive stealth
programme and a lower cost fighter, he added.
His company will join almost 800 other commercial aerospace
and defence firms that are exhibiting at Japan Aerospace 2016,
the four-day show which begins in Tokyo on Wednesday.
The event, held only once every four years, is the first
major aerospace show since Abe two years ago ended a ban on
military exports, allowing Japanese firms to export arms for the
first time since the end of World War Two.
On the commercial side, Japan is promoting the Mitsubishi
Regional Jet (MRJ), the nation's first attempt in half a century
to build a commercially viable civilian aircraft. The 100-seat
MRJ, which has been delayed by five years, is aimed at taking on
regional jet makers Bombardier Inc in Canada and
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)