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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

U.S. pitches jets to Japan

Acting on his administration's drive to bolster military cooperation with Japan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Tokyo consider buying U.S. combat aircraft.

Gates made the pitch while in Japan for talks with defense officials.

In a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, the U.S. defense secretary suggested "Japan consider three U.S. planes to upgrade their fleet," the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet, now a product of Boeing and Northrop Grumman, and Boeing's F-15 Eagle.

He said the Pentagon could provide details on the merits of each aircraft to Japan for review.

Japan has been considering upgrading its military arsenal in the face of China's growing military might and assertive stance in the Pacific.

In a speech to university students Gates encouraged Japan to look beyond a recent controversy over a U.S. military base in Okinawa, arguing that a "strong alliance" between Tokyo and Washington was "vital" to Asian security.

The issue of U.S. presence in Japan has long been controversial. Some want the United States out altogether but an agreement clinched in 2006 calls for the transfer of the U.S. base to less populated areas where locals would see "far fewer U.S. troops and aircraft."

Still, Gates stressed, the United States would follow Tokyo's lead and not insist on quick implementation of the base deal.

Gates took to Tokyo after visiting China, where fence-mending talks were upstaged by a Chinese stealth fighter test that came much sooner than U.S. military planners had expected.

Pitching the purchase of new aircraft, Gates said the move would "give Japan the opportunity … to have a fifth-generation capability. And I might have a few suggestions for them."

"Fifth-generation" fighters are equipped with stealth, radar-evading equipment and the F-35, which is still under development, would meet that requirement.

Produced by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 project is the most expensive weapons program in the Pentagon's history. It has been plagued for years by cost over runs and technical delays. The project is estimated at $382 billion.

Israel and Singapore have been among the first nations to sign up for deliveries of the fifth-generation warplane.

While in Tokyo, Gates also discussed Japan's development of an anti-missile system designed to be fired from ships with the goal of intercepting larger ballistic missiles.

Washington is keen to sell the system, dubbed as SM-3, to other client nations, including to South Korea. That, however, would require Japan to revise strict restrictions on weapons exports.

Japan has hoped to acquire the F-22 stealth fighter, manufactured by Lockheed and Boeing, to replace its aging F-4Ej fighter jets, which were made by McDonnell Douglas. The United States, however, has halted production of the model, as guiding laws bar the export of the plane.

In recent months, Japan has also appeared to be considering other planes, including the Eurofighter, produced by a consortium of European manufacturers.

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