Asia's F-35 buyers forced to wait as China seeks edge

CANBERRA (REUTERS) - The Pentagon's F-35 warplane is giving the United States' allies in Asia a headache as they look to replace ageing jets with a cutting edge aircraft now likely to be at least seven years late in offering a strategic deterrent to China.

The US$400 billion (S$504 billion) weapons project has suffered technical faults, delays, cost overruns and now US budget cuts that could force Washington to scale back its own purchases. At the same time,

China's soaring defence spending is rapidly eroding the advantage in technology, particularly in air power, that Washington and some of its regional allies have had over the People's Liberation Army since the 1950s. China is also flight testing two stealth fighters, the J-20 and the J-31, although they are not expected to enter service until the end of the decade at the earliest, military aviation experts said.

"It's an open question as to how advanced and sophisticated they actually are," said Mr Andrew Davies, a senior strategy analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, referring to the Chinese fighters. "But having said that, they make life more difficult for existing types, so the F-35 becomes more important."

The F-35 is the costliest weapons programme in history. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor. Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies, makes the engine.

Australia has ordered 100 F-35s, although defence analysts say it may buy only 50 to 70, given Canberra is expected to decide in June to double its fleet of 24 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. That would prevent a frontline gap until the F-35 is delivered later in the decade.

Japan said it was not changing its plan to buy 42 planes, while South Korea is expected to choose the F-35 as the winner of a 60-jet competition to be decided this summer. Singapore is likely to order more than a dozen F-35s in the coming weeks.

When Asian customers first lodged orders, regional conflict appeared remote. But a bitter territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of islands in the East China Sea has crystallised attention on China's expanding fleet of advanced fighters and strike aircraft. China is also pitted against the Philippines, Vietnam and other South-east Asian nations over claims to the South China Sea. Both bodies of water are potentially rich in oil and gas.

Western analysts are sceptical about whether the new Chinese fighters will be any match for the fifth generation F-35 or the more expensive Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor already in service with the US air force but not available for export. In addition to the challenges of designing and operating stealth aircraft, China will have to overcome shortcomings with locally made engines that have forced it to rely almost exclusively on Russian power plants for its current frontline fighters.

While Lockheed continues to promise F-35s on Asia-Pacific runways from around 2017, the aircraft may not be available in meaningful numbers for five years beyond that. That leaves Japan and South Korea relying on a generation of older planes the F-35 was supposed to replace.

"You can keep an aeroplane for as long as you want. The problem with aircraft age is you lose availability and reliability of the aircraft," said Australia's air force chief, Air Marshal Geoff Brown.

Japanese defence officials and experts said Tokyo was not about to panic.

"It's not like China has great stealth fighters. What matters in military capability is where you are in relation to your opponent," said Mr Toshiyuki Shikata, a Teikyo University professor and a retired general.