Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Plane Without A Policy

Michael Auslin of AEI has produced an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal taking quite a different view of the likely Japanese government decision to purchase Lockheed-Martin F-35s than I did the other day. At least in terms of which direction the author's thumb is pointing.

As far as I can tell from the essay, the clear advantage for Japan in owning a set (and by a set I mean 40, the number of planes being jiggled about in the mainstream press) of F-35s is that the plane will be invisible to pilots of the current generation of Chinese and Russian attack fighters. Which is all very well and good up to the point where the F-35 actually fires something, when its presence will then become very much known.

Now the possession of F-35s could have a deterrent effect, making Chinese or Russian commanders less willing to invade Japanese airspace or attack a Japanese ship or aircraft in international airspace or waters on the chance that an F-35 could be nearby, ready to retaliate. However, in the event that such an intrusion or attack would occur, it would certainly only be carried out as a part of a coordinated and multi-asset planned attack, which the presence of F-35s would not deter.

An F-35 could ostensibly be used to loiter around in the wake of an attack squadron of F-15s and/or F-2s, serving as an invisible friend of these planes should they be set upon by more acrobatic Sukhoi 27 and Sukhoi 30 variants. However, not even the role of silent protector works out in terms of Self Defense Forces doctrine, because stealth is only really advantageous when given the chance to fire first, without warning, which no ASDF commander has the authority to order and no ASDF pilot is trained to do. Firing on the Sukhois after they have engaged the F-15s or F-2s may be psychologically rewarding, but will not bring back the lost F-15s and F-2s. Firing on the Sukhois while they are engaging the F-15s and F-2s will make a messy situation only messier (Missiles here, missiles there -- missiles, missiles everywhere...).

As for ASDF F-35s invisibly intruding into Chinese, Russian or DPRK airspace, what would be the mission? Destroying the opponents command and control systems? Destroying fixed missile sites? Destroying mobile missile launchers? Engaging fighters over the other country's territory? All of these acts are not just contrary to Japanese defense doctrine, they are unconstitutional -- and no seriously proposed revision to the Japanese constitution gets within even shouting distance of permitting such missions except as a response to an attack on Japan, which is already covered under the Japan-U.S. Security Arrangements -- i.e., it is a problem for the United States to handle, whereupon the F-35s that would be responding will be U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy planes.

No matter how one slices it, one cannot come up with a mission for Japanese F-35s to perform, save keeping the U.S. government happy and the reputation for paying exorbitant amounts of money for a small number of fighters intact.

As for the Russian and Chinese stealth fighter programs, which are themselves responses to the threat posed by the U.S.A.'s F-22s -- a threat that, every so often (twice this year, at least) does not exist -- neither of them are going anywhere soon, either because the generals are kidding themselves (the Russians) or the generals know damn well that test flying a prototype stealth fighter in daylight is not something a country with a serious stealth program does (the Chinese).

And if the policy problems were not enough to kill interest in the F-35, the plane itself, as Tobias Harris passes on in a Facebook link, has so far been a dud.

So I would agree with Michael Auslin in thinking a Government of Japan decision to acquire the F-35 has Tokyo taking security to another plane (Hardy, har har har!). Unfortunately, it is another astral plane.

Later - It probably means nothing...but it seems the announcement of the F-35's having won the contest to become Japan's next generation fighter has been delayed.


Anonymous said...

I think it is possible that they just picked the plane that would keep the greatest number of Japanese factories ticking, knowing that they will never actually need to use the thing.

Other than that, I believe it was also the only fighter being considered that comes in a short/vertical take-off variation. I don't know which variation they intend to buy, but maybe they have that "helicopter destroyer" in mind?

MTC said...

Anonymous -

Only one problem with that -- and it's one the British have not yet solved, even though they are building a new carrier: the VTOL and STOVL F-35 variant burns a hole in any know flat top's deck.