Japanese companies bid on nation's FSX jet-fighter program. Results could affect Japan's competitive position

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Japanese companies are bidding to develop the country's FSX -- support fighter experimental. The outcome could influence Japan's ability to compete with the United States and Europe in aircraft manufacturing.

Military aviation provides an entry into the commercial aviation area, evidenced by the country's expanding role as a producer of components for Boeing aircraft. It also provides valuable spinoffs, ranging from metal baseball bats to electronics. Domestic production is also justified on the grounds of national security, as insurance against possible uncertain supply of aircraft and parts from the US in times of crisis.

The FSX is planned to come into service by the mid to late 1990s and, in addition to replacing Japan's F-1 fighter, it may also replace the large fleet of aging Phantom F-4 jets.

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Japanese companies already produce a wide range of equipment for the armed forces, including a variety of aircraft and engines, much of it under license from United States companies. The experience that Japanese manufacturers have acquired through such license arrangements has been a key to their effort to ``catch up'' with US and European rivals.

With the exception of certain sensitive ``black box'' technologies, mainly electronic systems, the Japanese are able to build domestically aircraft such as theF-15 fighter and the P-3 Orion antisubmarine warfare aircraft. The Japanese have been so adept at accumulating skills and technology that US companies are now much more cautious about transferring technology for fear of aiding a potential competitor.

In certain areas, the Japanese already claim to match their former American mentors. Toshio Murai, general manager of MHI's aircraft division, has claimed that the F-15s built at Nagoya are significantly more reliable than those made by McDonnell Douglas. Advanced Japanese production methods and quality control, along with materials technology, are credited for this. McDonnell Douglas officials here point out, however, that MHI builds an average of one aircraft a month.

But Japanese industry still has considerable problems to overcome before it can pose a real competitive threat. It is very weak in engine design. More important, it has very little experience in designing and producing aircraft from scratch.

MHI, the most experienced company, has produced one totally domestic supersonic jet fighter, the F-1, a derivative of a jet trainer developed for the air self-defense force. Though a capable aircraft, the F-1 was considered out of date by international standards even when it was introduced in the late 1970s.

A plan for complete domestic production of the FSX has strong support from elements of the defense agency and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The JDA has financed experimental work on a control configured vehicle, a computer-controlled highly maneuverable plane. Work on such technology is also going on in the US.

With the exception of the engine, MHI and the JDA's R&D section claim they can produce a ``state of the art'' plane.

There is strong pressure, however, for Japan to choose an US plane as the FSX. With the issue of Japan's trade surplus with the US lurking in the background, American critics of the domestic option are highly skeptical of industry's claim to be able to produce a capable, cost-effective plane. There is considerable Japanese support for that view, even within the JDA. Advocates of purely domestic production are pushing for a decision this summer to include money in next year's defense budget for the project.

Foreign Ministry sources, however, say opponents of this course have won a postponement of the decision to give time to study other options, including possible ``co-development'' of an advanced version of a US plane, probably the McDonnell Douglas F-18, which would incorporate domestic Japanese technology.

While they do not talk much about it publicly, Japanese manufacturers anticipate that their country's ban on military exports may someday be removed. ``A substantial proportion of Japanese [defense] equipment suppliers feel a powerful drive to enter world export markets,'' reports a recent study of the Japanese defense industry by the Jardine Fleming investment firm. ``Notwithstanding current restrictions, it would be rash to assume that they could not compete effectively in the world markets in, say, rather over a decade's time.''

Thus, how the FSX project goes will probably determine Japan's ability to mount a serious challenge in the future military aviation market.

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