Last week, we noted the Air Force’s long-standing opposition to potential exports of the F-22 stealth fighter. From the service’s perspective, it made little sense to share our most advanced technology with any foreign customer, even long-time allies like Israel and Japan. Past experience shows that advanced technology has a habit of winding up in the wrong hands, even with stringent export controls.

One the most recent–and infamous–examples of an illegal technology transfer is the Lavi fighter program, a joint U.S.-Israeli venture that began in the 1980s. The Lavi program was aimed at developing an advanced, multi-role fourth-generation fighter, based on the U.S. F-16. American taxpayers provided much of the funding for the Lavi, while the Israelis supplied the bulk of the technical expertise. Unfortunately, the program proved too expensive and was ultimately scrapped.

So what happened to the Lavi? Many of the Israeli experts–and the technology–made their way to China, where they formed the foundation of the F-10 fighter program. The F-10 is virtually a clone of the Lavi, with an advanced air intercept radar, avionics, and Russian-made, active-radar, air-to-air missiles. As we noted recently, the F-10 isn’t a world-beater, but it’s easily the best fighter the Chinese have built on their own (more or less), and it provides a foundation for more sophisticated aircraft in the future. By comparison, the F-22 is truly state-of-the-art, and the Air Force is (rightfully) concerned about the possible compromise of that technology through export sales.

Despite those concerns, the possibility of foreign F-22 sales may still exist. As Bill Gertz reported in the Washington Times last Friday, Japan would like to purchase up to 100 Raptors, and that has ignited a debate within the administration. Pro-China elements at the White House and the Pentagon oppose the deal, which would (obviously) upset Beijing. On the other hand, officials concerned about China’s growing military power support the proposed export deal, noting that the Japan sale could cause a shift in the region’s balance of power. For the near term, the U.S. is planning only limited F-22 deployments in the Far East, with Raptor squadrons in Alaska and Okinawa. Japan’s acquisition of the Raptor–even for defensive purposes–would force China to realign its advanced fighter force to meet that challenge, at the expense of basing along the Taiwan Strait.

Raptor sales to Japan would also keep the Lockheed assembly line open past the projected shut-down date, which means more jobs and revenue in states like Texas and Georgia. The Air Force also hopes that foreign interest might spur our own government to buy more F-22s. Beset by rising costs, the U.S. Raptor purchase may be limited to only 179 jets, well below what the service wants. Keeping the production line open would give the Air Force (and its supporters) a chance to lobby Congress for a bigger “domestic” buy.

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But there is a risk in that strategy. First, convincing Congress to buy more F-22s will be a tough sell, despite its technological supremacy. With the Army and Marine Corps trying to overcome a decade of under-funding, it’s difficult to persuade lawmakers to purchase additional Raptors, at almost $300 million a copy. Secondly, approval of exports to Japan will bring demands for sales to other U.S. allies, including South Korea, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia. Ensuring the security of F-22 technology in those countries would be more difficult, reflecting internal security issues, or (in the case of Israel) a willingness to share it with other countries.

F-22 exports will be on the agenda when President Bush meets with Japan’s Prime Minister later this week. Resolution of the issue will take longer, and shape the course of the Raptor program for decades to come.

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