TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is likely to pick Lockheed Martin’s (LMT.N) F-35 fighter jets to replace its ageing fleet of F-4 Phantom fighters, reaffirming strong security ties with the United States, Japanese media reported on Tuesday.
The government will choose between two U.S. models — the F-35 and the Boeing (BA.N) F/A-18 Super Hornet — and Europe’s four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon, at a meeting of the national security council on Friday, the Nikkei business daily said.
The date of the planned meeting could not be confirmed with government officials and chief cabinet spokesman Osamu Fujimura said no decision had been made.
Analysts say the purchase is potentially worth $8 billion.
The F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive of the three, leads the others due to its “overwhelmingly superior performance” and stealth capabilities, the newspaper said.
The competition comes as China develops a so-called fifth-generation or highly advanced stealth fighter jet called the J-20, which made its maiden flight in January this year.
“This is a sound decision. Given a rising China, Japan will likely have an increasing number of opportunities to act with the United States within the framework of their security alliance,” said Narushige Michishita, Associate Professor of Security and International Studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Michishita said that while the new generation of jets would substantially enhance Japan’s defence capability, he expected a muted reaction from Beijing.
“The decision should be in line with what China has anticipated and come with little surprise. However an easing of a weapons export ban could come under China’s criticism.”
Japan, which under its pacifist constitution has a self-imposed ban on weapons exports, is discussing relaxing the restrictions for peace-building and humanitarian missions and joint development projects.
Once the selection is made, the government plans to deploy four new jets in fiscal 2016, with the number expected to rise to between 40 and 50, the Nikkei added.
“Lockheed Martin has not been officially notified of a decision by the Japanese Ministry of Defense regarding the F-X competition,” a Lockheed spokesman said in response to the report.
“The F-35 bid offered by the U.S. government and Lockheed Martin meets all of the F-X requirements, while providing affordable 5th Generation capability and significant industrial value to Japan,” the spokesman said by email.
The Pentagon’s F-35 program office also said it had not received any word from Japan on its decision.
Japan originally showed interest in Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, the top-of-the-line U.S. stealth fighter, but U.S. legislators have banned its export.
The radar-evading F-35 is often touted as the second-best choice in the U.S. arsenal after the F-22, but marketers pitch the F-18 and Eurofighter as strong alternatives. Both fly on two engines, considered an advantage in long missions over sea.
The Eurofighter was developed by a consortium of EADS EAD.PA on behalf of Germany and Spain, Finmeccanica’s SIFI.MI Alenia of Italy and Britain’s BAE Systems (BAES.L) which has led the sales campaign in Japan.
Most defence analysts give Europe a slimmer chance in the competition due to Japan’s close ties with the United States.
The market for fighter jets in the Middle East and Asia is particularly active as air forces worldwide come up against replacement cycles and prepare for growing fears of insecurity.
India is expected to decide on a potential $11 billion order for 126 fighter jets in coming weeks, with the choice narrowed down to a European showdown between the Eurofighter and France’s Rafale, built by Dassault Aviation (AVMD.PA).
Those two aircraft are also bidding for an order in the United Arab Emirates that was until recently seen as a sure win for the Rafale, while the United States said on Monday it would sell 18 more Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to Iraq.
The big competitions are coming to a head as Lockheed prepares to produce the last F-22 fighter jet which is due to roll off the production line on Tuesday.
In Tokyo’s F-X fighter competition, the Japanese government has sought 55.1 billion yen ($708.14 million) for an initial four jets in the fiscal 2012 budget and the total cost is estimated at about 1 trillion yen, Nikkei reported.
($1 = 77.8100 Japanese yen)
Additional reporting by Tim Hepher, Jim Wolf, Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Nick Macfie