TOKYO — The Japanese Defense Agency, ending a heated, three-year debate, on Wednesday announced approval of a $7-billion program to make a new version of the U.S. F-16 fighter its next-generation of fighter-support plane.
The decision will give the General Dynamics Corp. its first access to Japan's military aircraft market. A spokesman for General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Tex., where the F-16 program is headquartered, told The Times the firm has received no word of the Tokyo announcement.
According to the announcement, the new version of the F-16, or F-SX3 as the Japanese call it, will be developed jointly by Japanese and U.S. technicians. This will break new ground, and the Defense Agency said it should "promote an epochal advance in the exchange of weapons technology between the two countries."
The agency said that at least 130 of the planes will be produced under license in Japan at a total cost, including spare parts, of 1 trillion yen, or $7.1 billion.
The agency said it will seek funds in next year's budget to begin development. If plans proceed on schedule, the first of the new planes will be deployed in 1993.
General Dynamics' F-16, known as the Fighting Falcon, was chosen over the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, which was said to be in contention to the end. Earlier, Japanese aircraft manufacturers had made a strong bid to develop a new aircraft on their own, but this was rejected after U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and other Pentagon officials intervened.
Weinberger eventually agreed to go along with a proposal by his Japanese counterpart, Yuko Kurihara, for joint development of a new version of an American aircraft.
Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) said Kurihara's announcement opened the door for sales to Japan that will have "the potential of a multibillion dollar shift in our trade imbalance."
New Jobs for U.S. Workers
And early this month in Washington, a U.S. official was quoted as saying that the decision could be worth "at least $1 billion" to the American firm that won it and could mean thousands of jobs for American workers.
But a Defense Agency aide, briefing the press Wednesday, refused to say to what extent the aircraft will depend on imports or how much Japan will pay in license fees.
The agency refused to disclose the reasons for rejecting the McDonnell Douglas plane, but officials said in private that remodeling to meet Japan's specifications promised to cost more than development of a new F-16.
The F-15's longer range was also described as a factor working against it. With memories of Japanese aggression in World War II still sharp, Japan has gone out of its way to avoid deploying weaponry that could be perceived as threatening its neighbors, even to the point of eliminating the in-flight refueling capability of aircraft.
Still, some versions of the F-16 have a range of more than 600 miles, more than twice that of the F-1, the Japanese-developed fighter that is to be replaced by the new plane. The Air Self-Defense Force has 77 F-1s, along with four squadrons of F-15s and six squadrons of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms.
Publicly, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who will leave office next month, stayed out of the debate over the choice of aircraft, but clearly the decision was made in order to give him credit for deciding on joint development.
The new plane will utilize Japanese technology for its radar and fire-control systems, and it will be given a more powerful engine to improve low-altitude performance.
The United States will have access to the Japanese technology, but under a military technology exchange agreement, the Pentagon will be obliged to seek Japan's permission to transfer the technology to any third country in the form of an aircraft that might be built by a U.S. manufacturer.