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FSX Fighter, Symbol of U.S.-Japan Tensions, Troubled a Year Later

May 12, 1991

NAGOYA, Japan (AP) _ Japan’s manufacturing giants dominate this factory-studded city between Tokyo and Osaka. The heart of the aerospace industry is also here, but it beats faintly next to its robust neighbors.

Japan’s anemic aerospace showing is a rare and embarrassing instance of failure in an industrial policy that helped lift autos, steel and semiconductors to world prominence.

Yet following the Persian Gulf War there is more of a consensus than ever that Japan needs to compete in this strategic industry, one of the few where America remains unquestionably dominant. Experts say Japan has a long way to go before becoming an independent player.

At the center of attention is the FSX fighter plane project, the U.S.-Japan joint venture that became a symbol of trade frictions in recent years. Some American officials feared Japan would use U.S. technology to conquer commercial aerospace as it has other industries.

A year after the much-delayed project - Japan’s first attempt at an advanced jet fighter - finally got under way, technology exchange is going mostly as planned between the two principal contractors, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., centered here, and St. Louis-based General Dynamics Corp., sources say.

But cost estimates for developing the plane, an updated version of General Dynamics’ F-16, have nearly doubled from $1.22 billion in 1987, exacerbating frictions between the contractors.

In addition, the 100 engineers working on the project are two years behind schedule. The approximately 130 FSXs planned for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces won’t start coming off the line until the late 1990s, industry officials say.

Mitsubishi, which built the famed Zero fighter of World War II and has been prime contractor on just about every Japanese aircraft project since, blames the problems partly on language difficulties and the inefficiency of coordinating technical research between distant companies.

Michiaki Kono, Mitsubishi vice president in charge of the FSX, also attributed the added costs to another U.S.-Japan sore point: Washington’s refusal to hand over F-16 computer source codes, the software that controls navigation, for national security reasons.

Before the FSX was announced in 1987, the Japanese government wavered on whether it was necessary. Some officials seemed willing to bow to Pentagon pressure to buy off-the-shelf F-16s. At $15 million, those would have cost far less than developing a new jet.

Since the Gulf War, however, ″any perceivable opposition (to FSX) has been quieted down,″ said a U.S. aerospace official in Japan who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Recent polls have shown U.S. resentment of Japan growing, and a new report sponsored by Japan’s Foreign Ministry suggests anti-Americanism is rising. Both trends underscore Japan’s fear of U.S. ″techno-nationalism″ and reinforce its desire to act on its own.

In an interview, Mitsubishi’s Kono said, ″The Gulf War strengthened our recognition of the importance of high-technology airplanes and weapons.″ Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu also emphasized recently that Japan should continue to build up its self-defense capability.

Those sentiments worry some Asian neighbors that suffered the lash of Japanese militarism during World War II.

Responding to Kaifu’s comments, a Singapore newspaper, the Chinese-language Lianhe ZaoBao, on March 26 described Japan’s military as a ″monster ... being developed in the laboratory of science and technology.″

″When it grows up to a certain stage, it will rip off the cage that binds it,″ the newspaper wrote.

Such fears are almost certainly exaggerated; pacifism in Japan is still pervasive and powerful. But the paranoia is probably just as bad among U.S. congressmen and trade officials who fear an independent Japanese push into commercial aerospace, both U.S. and Japanese aerospace experts say.

″I don’t see it, not for the next 10 years at least,″ said the U.S. aerospace official. ″What I’ve seen (of Japanese technology) so far hasn’t impressed me ... They’re not integrating the aircraft, they’re building pieces. That’s a whole different ball of wax.″

In addition, military fighter technology is not readily transferable to commercial aircraft even though Mitsubishi, a $14 billion colossus that makes everything from cruise ships to air conditioners, also owns minority stakes in co-development projects with Boeing Co., the world leader.

″We have no intention of using technologies acquired through the FSX project for commercial airplanes,″ said Kono.

Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry is also quick to discount an independent commercial venture, despite its continuing support of aerospace, which includes about $30 million for research and development this year.

Indeed, in December, Japan’s Defense Agency awarded the FSX engine contract to General Electric Co., another U.S. company that makes both military and commercial engines.

″Because of our earlier failure, MITI changed its policy to encourage only international cooperation,″ said a ministry official who, by custom, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

That was a reference to the YS-11, Japan’s first attempt to build a commercial airliner on its own. The turbo-prop flopped in the marketplace in the ’60s and ’70s, costing the government as much as $165 million by some estimates.

Japan remains haunted by that experience and that of European Airbus, a government-subsidized French, German and British consortium that also has been a chronic money-loser.

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