TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s government has selected the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter to bolster its aging air force and is likely to announce the multibillion-dollar deal by the end of the week, news reports said Tuesday.
The announcement is expected after a committee meeting Friday, according to Kyodo News agency and the Yomiuri newspaper. A spokesman for Lockheed Martin said it had not been informed of any decision, and Defense Ministry officials refused to comment.
Japan is expected to buy as many as 40 jets for as much as $8 billion. The Yomiuri report said it will budget for the first four aircraft in 2012.
Japan has wrangled for years over whether to buy the F-35, Boeing F-18 or the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium of European companies. The U.S. planes were seen as the favorites because of close U.S.-Japan military ties.
The F-35, also called the Joint Strike Fighter, is the Pentagon’s biggest weapons procurement program — costing $238 billion — and has support from allies including Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel and several European nations. It is to be used by the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy.
Lockheed says that eventually several thousand could be produced.
Japan — with 362 fighter jets, mostly F-15s, F-4s and F-2s — is already one of the top air powers in the region. But planners have long been concerned by the increasing age and expense of maintaining the fleet — along with Japan’s ability to match the improving air capabilities of its neighbors.
Washington is Tokyo’s main ally. Roughly 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan under a security pact. Japan’s air force must work closely with its American counterpart, and using the same or similar equipment makes that easier.
Japan’s main concerns are China and Russia — with which it has long-standing territorial disputes — along with the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles.
China, whose military has been growing more capable and assertive, recently rolled out its next-generation stealth fighter, the much-touted Chengdu J-20. Though it may be years away from actual operations, it is seen as a rival to the best U.S. fighters and far superior to what Japan now has.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.