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America's Ho-hum Effort to Learn From Japan : Technology: The FSX jet fighter program is a case in point of how the U.S. would rather complain than develop a coherent policy of transfer.

June 21, 1992|David Friedman and Richard J. Samuels | David Friedman is a research fellow in the MIT Japan Program and an attorney with Tuttle & Taylor in Los Angeles. Richard J. Samuels is a professor and the director of the Japan Program at MIT

TOKYO — In a flurry of press releases coinciding with the latest government review of the U.S.-Japan FSX co-development program, Japan again was condemned for maintaining barriers to its domestic technologies. To be sure, Japan could do much more to facilitate technology "flowbacks" to the United States. But the most critical problems afflicting the jet-fighter program remain America's lack of a coherent technology policy and its failure to take sufficient steps to tap Japanese resources. Washington can hardly expect countries like Japan to simply hand over their technologies.

The FSX program was explicitly sold to Congress with the intent that U.S. companies obtain Japanese technology while collaborating to build a jet fighter in Japan. Virtually every previous overseas military production deal has included boilerplate language permitting U.S. companies general access to or "flowback" from their partners' technologies. Yet, for a variety of reasons, neither Washington nor U.S. defense contractors aggressively pursued these rights.

After Japan reluctantly agreed to the FSX joint-development program, critics worried that Japanese companies would obtain U.S. defense technology, developed at considerable taxpayer expense, without giving up anything in return. To mollify Congress, the U.S. government attempted to expand the technology flow back provisions of the FSX program. The result was an agreement that U.S. companies would enjoy free access to any Japanese technologies directly derived from U.S.-supplied information and would have the right to evaluate and purchase FSX technologies the Japanese developed on their own.

For a brief moment, the FSX debate sharply focused U.S. anxieties over defense-technology transfers and learning from abroad. But once the FSX agreement was signed, Congress, the federal bureaucracy and the military lost interest in the specifics. As a result, top-level guidance concerning acquistion of Japanese technology wasn't forthcoming.

Enter diligent junior- and mid-level military and government staffers, who are forced to improvise answers to the specific problems involved in FSX technology transfer and flowback procedures. Even the most basic steps essential to acquire Japanese FSX technology are the result of chance hallway meetings between Japanese and resident American officials in Japan. The U.S. commitment to learn from Japan is taken so casually that if just four or five key mid-level staffers were to leave the government, the United States would have no one with a comprehensive grasp of the technical, political and commercial issues involved in the FSX project.

The lack of clear guidance in the complex technology-transfer process inevitably leads to unanticipated consequences. Early in the FSX program, for example, Japanese firms applied for licenses from U.S. manufacturers to produce many key components for the aircraft. If Washington had a coordinated, top-level commitment to obtain specific Japanese industrial knowledge, it might have been possible to use FSX licenses as a bargaining chip to build reciprocal information and technology exchanges.

Instead, mid-level reviewers in the Department of Defense were forced to approve or reject Japanese license applications in a largely arbitrary manner, hoping to protect "key" U.S. defense technology while inducing Japan to buy directly from U.S. vendors. Japanese companies, however, elected to produce most of the components they sought on their own, frequently relying on expertise obtained through previous joint-production experiences with U.S. defense contractors. They were also able to license or buy certain critical technologies without Pentagon review through purely commercial transactions with U.S. companies, further enhancing the pace of "dual-use" technology transfers to Japan.

Not surprisingly, U.S. defense contractors are ill-prepared to take advantage of the FSX flowback provisions. None of the approximately 70 U.S. engineers and managers in Japan are fluent in Japanese. To learn about the program's technology issues, they must rely on abbreviated translations provided by Japanese corporate or government personnel. Compounding the problem, many FSX technical or design reviews are held hours after U.S. engineers have left for the day.

In light of America's strikingly casual approach to critical technology transfer and learning, Japan has few incentives to open doors for its American collaborators. Instead, the FSX program is marked by a continuous struggle in which low- to mid-level U.S. military and commercial staff, without clear direction or support from above, are pitted against a phalanx of Japanese representatives, from all levels of industry and government, who share a commitment to build and protect their country's technological base. Given this dramatic imbalance in strengths, it is little wonder that FSX technology flowback to the United States, as recent news reports suggest, is not yet satisfactory.

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