FOR weeks the FSX fighter deal with Japan has been one of Capitol Hill's hot topics. Subcommittee after subcommittee has held hearings on the proposed joint venture as members of Congress vented pent-up frustration about the huge US trade deficit with Japan. But the realization has dawned on many legislators that complaining is the only action they can take. Administration witnesses have been saying in so many words that the United States has little leverage to make further changes in the deal.
``We'll be the big losers if this particular arrangement is not approved,'' said Carl Ford, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and Pacific affairs.
Why won't Japan just buy US-built F-16s off General Dynamic's Texas production line? That's the standard congressional gripe, and it's a logical one. For once the US has a manufactured product that meets Japan's needs and would be far cheaper than a Japanese-built version. Wouldn't the rational decision for Japanese leaders be to spend some of their ever-growing US dollar horde on US fighters? Not necessarily.
For one thing, the F-16 is not exactly what the Japanese military wants, according to US military officers. They need a plane with a larger wing, for taking off and landing on short airfields that will not accommodate standard F-16s. They want a plane that has greater range and more maneuverability. There are many large birds in the northern airspace of Japan, where the FSX will spend much time flying, so the Japanese want more bird strike protection with a canopy 50 percent stronger than the F-16's.
For another thing, in today's job-conscious age, selling a whole US-made fighter to a developed nation just is not an option, according to the Bush administration. No industrialized country has bought an F-16 off the shelf in 10 years. The US already co-produces the F-16 with Turkey, among others.
Many in the Japanese government wanted their nation to develop its own new fighter in the first place, a number of administration witnesses pointed out. The joint US-Japanese FSX development was ``our idea,'' Deputy Assistant Secretary Ford said.
Thus, if Congress somehow succeeded in killing the FSX agreement (which is considered unlikely), Japan would pick one of two options, according to the administration. Either it would go back to its original plan and build an all-Japanese product, or it would enlist the aid of European nations eager for a share of Japanese aerospace business.
US decisions on this issue have been motivated by a desire to not ``lose the market entirely,'' said William Clark, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
In other words, according to the administration the US choices are: Go along with the FSX deal, and reap the estimated $2.5 billion it will bring to US companies - or get nothing.
The Bush administration insists that the FSX deal could give the US access to several Japanese manufacturing technologies that would be of great value to US industry. Producing composite wings without using rivets is one such technology cited.
The congressional General Accounting Office, however, has concluded that US companies have little to learn from Japan in these areas.
Computer software ``source codes,'' the proprietary material at the heart of software programs, has been a major item of contention in the FSX deal. Critics have maintained that the US was giving away airplane-control software that had taken millions of dollars and years of sweat to develop.
Clarifications made in the FSX Memorandum of Understanding with Japan now mean that the Japanese will not have access to the software source code for the F-16's new digital flight-control system, according to Bush officials. This source code would have commercial airliner applications.
Other items Japan will not receive data about include crucial engine-turbine and fuel-control parts, airfoil and wing design methods, and microcircuit design and manufacturing technology.
The administration says the FSX deal will not aid the Japanese in developing a civilian airline industry, but this is clearly still a concern on Capitol Hill. In this sense the FSX has become a symbol for US trade problems.
Said Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana Wednesday: ``It is clear to me what the people of Indiana want. ... They have a deep, deep mistrust of the Japanese.''