NEW YORK — THE Pentagon has tacitly accepted a plan by the Japan Defense Agency (JDA) to develop an indigenous light helicopter. The failure of the United States Defense Department to press Japan to buy an American vehicle threatens to draw protests from Congress and US economic agencies.Last month the JDA submitted a budget request for the helicopter, known as OHX. Work contracts will be awarded next year following government approval. According to US officials in Tokyo, the Bush administration passed up an opportunity to comment on the OHX plan. Last April, the JDA made a short presentation on OHX during a meeting of the Systems and Technology Forum, the channel for bilateral cooperation on defense technologies. Officials from the Pentagon's International Programs division, which coordinates defense technology cooperation with Japan, were present. The JDA said it planned to proceed with domestic development of the OHX, but expressed a willingness to consider American proposals. JDA requested that comments be submitted by the end of August, after which time the official budget request would lock the program on a domestic course.
Japan wary after FSX case JDA officials hoped to avoid a replay of the controversy that surrounded the FSX, a jet now under joint development by Japan and the US. Japan originally intended to develop the FSX alone, but agreed to codevelopment under intense pressure from the US. The controversy was marked by accusations that the FSX would bolster Japan's commercial aerospace efforts and that the US was giving away key technologies. "We favor domestic development of OHX, but because of political factors we would consider American suggestions," a top JDA official says. Since the April briefing by JDA, US officials in Tokyo have assumed that the lack of comment from Washington indicated the Bush administration was not anxious to collaborate with Japan on light helicopter development. The US Army has a $34 billion program to develop its own light attack helicopter, known as LH. The OHX will be smaller and unarmed. So a program to codevelop the two vehicles would require substantial design alterations, which neither country seems inclined to make. Moreover, in the wake of the FSX controversy, both the Pentagon and Congress have eschewed large-scale cooperative research efforts with Japan, in favor of smaller, simpler projects. The Pentagon for most of this year has been concentrating on convincing Japan to go forward with plans to purchase several AWACS early warning aircraft, which would provide a much-desired contract for Boeing.
US Army shows interest Recently, however, the Army has shown interest in the OHX program, particularly in light of Pentagon budget cuts that will result in far fewer purchases of LH aircraft than originally planned. Some Army officials would like to sell whole units to Japan, or sell technologies developed for the LH that could be utilized by OHX. Executives from Sikorsky, the helicopter maker developing the LH together with Boeing, agree. "We have expressed an interest in being involved in OHX," says David Powell, vice president for Japan programs at Sikorsky. Thus far, the Department of Commerce and the Office US Trade Representative (USTR) have had little involvement with OHX. High level officials of both agencies said they had no knowledge of an August deadline for comments on OHX. However, interest in OHX remains high at both agencies. Sikorsky officials say Commerce has been supportive of their efforts to become involved with OHX, USTR has repeatedly charged that the OHX program is part of a Japanese government effort to strengthen Japan's civilian aerospace industry. Japan is currently an important market for American civilian helicopters. US officials in Tokyo are worried that, despite the passing of the August deadline, the administration or Congress might suddenly demand discussions with Japan about OHX. Thus far, OHX has not become a big issue on Capitol Hill. "None of the defense contractors have come to us protesting being shut out of OHX," says Charles Smith, an aide to Sen. Alan Dixon (D) of Illinois.