March 1, 2007  

Pacific arms race

Why Asia is where the JSF matters most

The conclusion of a second memorandum of understanding on the Joint Strike Fighter in December opened the door for the JSF to progress from being a paper airplane to an aircraft in production. Although the future of the JSF (also known as the F-35 Lighting II) remains clouded while the jet progresses through three separate designs, the aircraft promises to be the mainstay of U.S. and allied force structures in Asia for decades to come. What are the prospects for the JSF in Asia? What will its incorporation into allied air forces mean for the U.S.?

The answers are contingent upon yet-unmade decisions in Washington and in regional capitals, but two major paths are clear. The JSF promises to allow Washington and its allies to develop stronger capabilities for conducting joint operations by developing a common set of technological, doctrinal and logistical experiences. But if the aircraft is thrown too far off course by programmatic problems, or an inability for Washington and its regional security partners to develop common expectations for its employment, the benefits of its employment will be minimized.

New Kid on the Block

The Joint Strike Fighter was developed to be many things to many people: a successor to the conventional takeoff and landing F-16 fighter and A-10 attack aircraft for the U.S. Air Force; a short takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) plane that could replace the Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps and U.K. Royal Navy; and a carrier-capable successor to the F-18 for the U.S. Navy. By hinging all of these operational hopes on a single platform, the U.S. Defense Department took a large risk — the simultaneous development of various models of F-35A/B/C would vastly reduce the procurement and logistical costs of a successful program but also means that problems in the JSF would affect all U.S. services, as well as those of key allies.

The driving concept behind the F-35 is that the U.S. and its allies will require an affordable, fifth-generation tactical fighter that can replace the aging F-15 and F-16 air fleets, while delivering significant advances in joint interoperability, battle-space awareness and stealth. The essential features of the F-35 are intended to deliver on all these accounts. A combination of Link 16 and satellite communications ability will allow the aircraft to remain in constant communication with a wide range of friendly assets; a state-of-the-art active electronically scanned array radar and other sensor suites will give the JSF a highly developed view of the battle space; and its low-observable design will give the aircraft high survival rates for air combat and ground attack missions.

Indeed, the JSF is designed to be a “kid brother” to the F-22 Raptor, the advanced fighter that entered service with the U.S. Air Force in December 2005. The JSF incorporates many of the features designed for the F-22, but is a single-engine, single-seat aircraft that is intended to be affordable both for acquisition in larger numbers by the U.S. Air Force (roughly paralleling the current division between F-15 and F-16 inventories) and for export to U.S. allies and security partners. Current price estimates for the JSF run in the ballpark of $40 million to $60 million — a hefty sum, but far less than the $135 million price tag for the F-22, and comparable to the $45 million cost of an F-16 today.

The JSF and the Allies

The corollary role to the JSF’s mission as a successor to the fourth-generation fighter aircraft in the U.S. military is that it is expected to be the dominant U.S. fighter export in coming decades and the major fighter in allied air forces as they shift to fifth-generation aircraft.

This global mission has driven the multinational organization of the JSF procurement program, in which partner countries contribute to the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase in order to gain industrial opportunities in the production of the F-35, as well as prioritized purchasing opportunities. Eight countries contributed a total of $4.5 billion to join the SDD phase of the program, ranging in three tiers of partnership (the U.K., with a $2 billion contribution, is the only Tier 1 partner). Israel and Singapore have also joined as noncontributing “security cooperation partners.”

The JSF ran into early difficulties, with the SDD phase being extended by two years in response to an excessive weight problem (early modeling overestimated the amount of thrust the engines would generate, a special liability for the STOVL version) and contretemps over the sharing of sensitive technologies necessary for alliance partners to tweak the aircraft’s performance. But at the end of 2006, Washington signed a memorandum of understanding (and a series of bilateral side agreements) with its development partners that will permit the JSF program to proceed to the production, sustainment and follow-on development (PSFD) phase of the program.

Current estimates for the PSFD phase of the JSF program are that the aircraft will enter into low-rate initial production this year, with optimized versions of each variant scheduled to take flight between February 2008 and January 2009. As production levels increase toward full steam by 2013, the early models of the F-35 will enter the American services, with large-scale exports to program partners expected to begin in 2012.

As with many U.S. arms-exports programs, the JSF faces an inherent contradiction. The main partners are European, with only one full partner of eight (Australia) and one security cooperation partner (Singapore) in Asia. But Asia is the only theater in which the JSF’s capabilities are obviously necessary, as the proliferation of advanced fourth-generation fighters is quickly placing the legacy air forces of the U.S. and its security partners in the region at risk.

Russian exports (as well as licensed production) of the Su-27, Su-30 and MiG-29 have remained strong throughout the post-Cold War period. Meanwhile, China has recently begun producing its J-10 fighter in large numbers, has offered the aircraft for export to Pakistan and is looking at other possible markets. Cumulatively, these developments mean that the mainline fourth-generation U.S. exports are at risk of being outclassed throughout the region — in highly watched (albeit friendly) mock engagements with the Indian Air Force, U.S. F-15 and F-16 fighters suffered disproportionate losses in head-on engagements against Indian pilots flying Russian-built aircraft.

This shifting balance in air power between U.S. and foreign-built fourth-generation fighters strikes at both the heart of U.S. air strategy for the region and the value of a U.S. security guarantee to its partners there. The tyranny of distance dictates that future U.S. military operations in Asia will require a combination of air and naval superiority in order to guarantee access to the region, prevent airstrikes against U.S. bases and friendly assets and maintain open sea lanes for international trade. Without allies and security partners who can hold their own against potential aerial threats, the balance in the region will become precarious and the value of the U.S. as a stabilizer will diminish.

It is in light of these developments and concomitant risks that the value of the F-35 as an exportable aircraft rises. The F-35 will outclass any potential threat in the region for the foreseeable future and, in the service of U.S. friends, will provide a set of technologically and logistically interoperable air forces to work in collaboration with the U.S. as circumstances require.

Sky’s the Limit for Australia

Australia is the keystone JSF partner in Asia, as it has both joined the program as a Tier 3 partner (contributing some $150 million to the SDD phase) and is looking to purchase up to 100 of the aircraft in a complete recapitalization of its air force. In December, Canberra granted “first pass” approval for purchasing the JSF and signed the PSFD memorandum, both milestones in what Australian officials describing as the country’s “total commitment” to the JSF.

Australia’s participation in the JSF program symbolizes of the revitalization of the U.S.-Australian alliance under the stewardship of Prime Minister John Howard. In recent years, Canberra has shifted its national security focus from the traditional defense-of-Australia mission that focuses on maintaining control over the so-called “air-sea gap” that separates Australia from its continental and maritime Southeast Asian neighbors toward expeditionary operations. Australia’s shift toward an expeditionary strategy inherently involves greater cooperation abroad (as well as an expanded security maintenance role in Southeast Asia and Oceania), as reflected in Australia’s participation in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Indeed, Australian defense officials speak of their relationship with U.S. forces not as “interoperability,” but “seamless integration” — reflecting the county’s ability to conduct aerial missions on par with its American counterparts.

Corresponding with Australia’s strategic shift toward expeditionary operations, Canberra has also sought to transform the composition of its air force. It is moving from a legacy force comprising F-111 and F-18 fighter/bombers, which has provided the country a strong air capability but also shown the limitations to being the sole operators of one system (the F-111) and one of the few air forces to operate a primarily naval aircraft (the F-18). Indeed, logistical and defense industrial concerns are at the center of Australia’s plan to move toward an air force structure that is more compatible with those of its primary allies.

The recapitalized Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) will be centered on a combination of F-35 fighters and the 737 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C), which Australia is developing through a defense-industrial partnership with Boeing. This new air fleet will provide Canberra with air superiority in the region for the foreseeable future, and with the additional purchase of aerial refueling aircraft, extend Australia’s strategic reach into Asia and the world. The inclusion of the Wedgetail into the RAAF will complement the country’s strong capabilities in signals intelligence, where the Jindalee Over the Horizon Radar Network already gives it the best early warning capabilities in the region.

Canberra has made a big bet on the F-35 as the primary combatant in the evolving RAAF. In addition to its commitment to the SDD phase of the aircraft, Australia has taken the first step to approving funding for the aircraft (the Australian defense procurement process involves long-term funding commitments), the announced purchase of F-18E/F Super Hornets has also been described as a stopgap to fill immediate requirements while waiting for F-35 deliveries.

Australia has also expressed interest in serving as a regional logistical and maintenance hub for the F-35 under the so-called Autonomic Logistics Global Sustainment program, a role that would make it a key partner for air forces throughout the region that eventually fly the JSF. As Australia moves to expand its role as a training and exercises partner for a large number of Asian countries and the U.S., this combination of technological capability, logistical support and security cooperation activism promises to make it a key air power in Asia for decades to come.

Singapore and Korea: Qualified Partners

Singapore is one of the most interesting security actors in Asia. The city-state maintains astoundingly close strategic ties with Washington, purchasing much of its equipment from U.S. suppliers, including its F-16 Falcons, AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and CH-47SD Chinooks, which are all based in the U.S., where it trains in close cooperation with American forces. Simultaneously, Singapore’s government appreciates its geographic proximity to China and its other Southeast Asian neighbors and seeks to avoid being seen in the region as the tip of an American spear. The country has thus consistently sought to maintain a relationship with the U.S. that allows it to maximize the benefits of its relationship while minimizing what could be weighty costs.

Singapore has likewise demonstrated its commitment to this strategy when it decided in 2005 to purchase a squadron of F-15 aircraft against France’s Rafale fighter, reaffirming the value of close ties with the U.S. Air Force in its acquisition and use of military aircraft. Sustained, strong ties with Canberra and other countries in the region also reinforce Singapore’s ability to benefit from growing interoperability among U.S. security partners in Asia, and the city-state bases a portion of its air force in Australia.

This hedged relationship with Washington is reflected in Singapore’s tie to the JSF program, in which it is participating as an “international security partner.” In that role, Singapore has maintained representation at the JSF program office in the U.S. without having to make any financial commitment through the SDD phase of the program. When the JSF is released for sale through the foreign military sales program, Singapore will enjoy being at the front of the queue for purchases (along with Israel), whereas nonpartner countries will have to line up afterward.

If the degree of Singapore’s participation in the JSF demonstrates how it seeks to use its hedged relationship with Washington to maintain as broad a set of strategic options as possible, South Korea presents an opposite trend, where Seoul is reluctant to commit to closer ties to Washington despite being a formal ally. Seoul recently procured a large number of F-15 aircraft from the U.S., but its emphasis on developing more self-reliant defense capabilities conflicts with the possible benefits for working with Washington on a program like the F-35 or even taking a qualified role as a security cooperation partner.

As Seoul considers future defense acquisitions, it also suffers from not having as widely developed a network of security partnerships as does Singapore. Whereas Singapore enjoys opportunities to exercise regularly with Australia and other major regional actors, the frosty relationship between Japan and South Korea has prevented the emergence of a cooperative military-military relationship between them. As a result, many of the advantages for multinational interoperability that may appear obvious to other potential JSF purchasers are not so for Korea.

As Singapore and South Korea watch the JSF program from their respective distances, their future procurement decisions will signal how they view their relationship with the U.S. Singapore appears well placed to enjoy an easily upgradeable relationship with Washington that allows it to maintain a broad range of strategic options. South Korea, meanwhile, is grappling with a relationship that it finds too restrictive at many levels — ready access to the F-35 may not be the greatest of its priorities, but will be an indicator of the future course of the alliance

The Little Japanese Giant

Tokyo’s relationship to the Joint Strike Fighter captures the country’s ongoing confusion in handling security issues: It seeks greater capabilities than the F-35 promises, but does not have a clear doctrine as to how it will use them; it has one of the most advanced defense industries in Asia, but is unable to participate in the JSF program due to a long-standing ban on arms exports. Tokyo will be grappling with these contradictions for years to come, and the F-35 program will be a useful example to see how it does so.

Japan is at the cusp of being a great air power in Asia. It has the best signals-intelligence capabilities, comprising a strong fleet of P-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, 767 AEW&C aircraft and P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft. With its large numbers of F-15 and F-2 fighters, it has the muscle to exercise a leading role in the region but has not determined how it will use its powerful air force, which has long been dedicated to a strictly defense mission for the home island and territorial waters.

The current air-power debate in Tokyo is focused on whether Japan should purchase the F-35 or push for access to the more advanced F-22, which U.S. law restricts from being exported to even Washington’s closest allies. Although this debate reflects the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s preference for playing with the best toys, it also gets to the heart of how Japan sees its military developing in the future — as a bulwark against China’s burgeoning air power, as a military ally capable of exerting airstrikes against such threats as North Korea’s nuclear program, or as a more capable pacifistic state with a vague strategy for employing its strength.

At the same time that Tokyo has had difficulty deciding whether it will focus on procuring the F-22 or F-35, a set of policy restrictions dating back to 1976 prevented Tokyo from partnering on the JSF program. When Prime Minister Takeo Miki strengthened the country’s restrictions on arms exports to be a comprehensive ban on exports to or investment in any country, it was widely viewed as a noble pacifistic gesture. Today, it means that Japan is becoming ever more excluded from trends in the global defense industry, with a highly capable base that can license and produce some of the best platforms in the world but that has not experienced the consolidation and integration that has characterized the rest of the global industry.

The emergence of the F-22 and F-35 has brought to a head the policy conundrum that the Miki arms restrictions introduced. With the emergence of such ever-more-advanced platforms as the F-22, Tokyo can no longer expect wholesale access to the transfer of the best technologies available. Meanwhile, Japan’s defense industry risks becoming a backwater if it does not have access to the technologies and techniques that such international programs as JSF permit countries to share. Simply put, Tokyo is running out of time to decide how it will interact with the global defense industry if it is to remain an important actor.

Pending decisions in Tokyo and Washington on the future of the F-22 and F-35 should provide the two countries an opportunity to define how they see Japanese air power evolving in the coming decades, and the two countries will nurture their defense industries in support of the alliance. Failure to do so will leave behind a rare opportunity to rescue Japan from its doctrinal and political muddle on these vital questions.

Whither Air power in Asia?

The F-35 will be the keystone of allied air power in Asia for at the first half of this century, but the question remains: What will Washington and its allies seek to do with that power? The emergence of the JSF program, the enhanced opportunities that it creates for interoperability and logistical cooperation, and the necessity for industrial partnerships in support of the program all create opportunities to address that question.

One obvious point is that the U.S. can no longer think of its procurement decisions strictly in terms of the requirements of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The high costs of aircraft, the necessity that they are produced in sufficient numbers to exploit economies of scale and the need to provision the air forces of allied powers mean that future procurement decisions will increasingly have to take the concerns of security partners into direct account. The degree of Australia’s commitment to the JSF program — its largest single procurement project in history — indicates the stakes that U.S. allies have riding on what were once considered parochial decisions.

Likewise, the success (or failure) of the JSF programmatic level as it proceeds from SDD to PSFD phases will be closely watched by out allies when they consider cooperative defense-industrial projects in the future. Although the JSF symbolizes the type of program that can allow the U.S. and its allies to pool resources and mutually support one another, it is also a reminder that when we all take off together, we are landing together, as well. AFJ