How fighter jet sales fit into America’s China-containment strategy

Nikkei Asian Review

March 31, 2016 12:00 pm JST

TETSURO KOSAKA, Nikkei senior staff writer

SINGAPORE — As China was busy deploying radar systems and surface-to-air missiles on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea in February, a pair of U.S. fighter jets soared over the sea en route to Singapore. They were F-22s — widely regarded as the world’s most powerful fighter aircraft, thanks to their stealth capabilities and high maneuverability.

     The jets, normally deployed in Alaska, were headed to the Singapore Airshow, Asia’s largest aerospace and defense exhibition. Yet the U.S. government does not export the F-22, preferring to keep the jet solely in the hands of its own Air Force. Why bother sending the planes to the show with no intention of selling them? U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joe Rixey, who was representing the Department of Defense, said the presence of the F-22s was meant to show America’s “technological progress and the strength of its partnership with Singapore.”

     Reading between the lines, the display of muscle was aimed, at least in part, at Beijing. And while the U.S. may not be marketing the F-22, it is keen to increase its regional clout by selling other weaponry to Asian countries.

Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-22, also exhibited a full-scale model of its F-35, another stealth fighter developed with several other countries. The new plane, which is to be used by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, offers advanced ground attack and anti-ship capabilities. The model was placed in a conspicuous spot at the exhibition site.

     China’s island-building efforts are intended to create “unsinkable aircraft carriers” and “offshore fortresses” — and make the South China Sea off-limits to U.S. forces. By flaunting the F-22 and F-35, the U.S. sent a message not only to the Beijing brass but also military personnel from other countries: China may build islands, but we’re capable of shooting down whatever planes take off from those bases, and destroying the bases themselves.


Lockheed Martin also unveiled a new version of an old standby at the Singapore Airshow: the F-16V. This plane is integral to America’s arms export strategy.

     It has been 42 years since the original F-16 was deployed. More than 4,500 of the jets have been produced for supply to the U.S. Air Force as well as European and Asian countries. The F-16V features new radar and information systems, the latest cockpit display technology and other upgrades. It is considered a fourth-generation fighter — as opposed to the F-22 and F-35, which are fifth-generation planes.

     “For many Southeast Asian countries, the F-35 is too expensive,” said Chuck Jones, chief executive of Lockheed Martin Japan. “The F-16 is not so expensive. They don’t need [the F-35’s] capability, but they need a very capable tactical fighter, and the F-16 is certainly that.”

     Jones also emphasized the F-16’s “proven combat record.” If you can count on bringing your plane and pilot home, he suggested, the jet is a much better value than cheaper, less reliable options.

Malaysia and Indonesia are now seen as promising potential buyers. Currently, the two countries use both Russian Sukhoi Su-30s and U.S.-made fighters. But mixing and matching aircraft is not the most cost-effective way to build a fleet. The U.S. hopes to persuade these Southeast Asian states to use only American fighters.

     Success could bring considerable benefits. Deals for large defense equipment, like fighters, usually include long-term arrangements concerning parts and maintenance. Generally, the seller sends teams of advisers to provide training. Various kinds of military information are exchanged. Getting Southeast Asian countries to use American fighters exclusively would give the U.S. extra influence in the region and an edge over China.

Buyer reliability

The U.S., meanwhile, is also pushing to sell Boeing F/A-18 fighters to India. The South Asian country has long procured defense equipment from Russia; a deal would help pull India deeper into the U.S. orbit.

     The U.S. sees selling arms as a way of winning more friends and strengthening alliances in Asia, an American defense source acknowledged on condition of anonymity.

     To summarize the American strategy: The U.S. keeps the F-22 to itself, provides the not-quite-as-advanced F-35 to close allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, and markets improved versions of older fighters like the F-16 and F/A-18 to countries with which it hopes to enhance relations.

     Put another way, the perceived reliability of the buyer correlates with the class of jet the U.S. is willing to supply. If a country that buys, say, F-16s later becomes an enemy, the damage would be lighter than if the U.S. had shared more advanced jets with stealth technology.

     Given China’s drive to augment its aerial firepower, some in Japan are urging the U.S. to share the F-22, which has better interception capabilities than the F-35. So far, Washington has refused. As an alternative, the U.S. wants Japan to join in an ongoing program to soup up the F-15, another fourth-generation fighter. “Upgraded F-15s will be viable against threats in 2020-2040,” said James Armington, vice president of East Asia & Pacific international business development at Boeing, the F-15’s manufacturer.

Access denial

The U.S. appears to have carefully devised its strategy of securing allies by exporting weapons. The policy may also be the only viable option for checking China in the long run.

     Over the past 20 years, the Chinese military has been steadily implementing what is known as an anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, strategy. It has deployed large numbers of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, fourth-generation fighter aircraft and other weapons as buffers against U.S. forces. If the U.S. and China were to clash in the South China Sea tomorrow, the former would still have the advantage. But over time, it will become increasingly difficult to predict the outcome of a conflict between the two.

     U.S. government and military officials have proposed several ideas for winning a hypothetical war with China. One, known as the Air-Sea Battle Concept, involves dispersing air and naval forces so that they would be able to counterattack following a Chinese onslaught. Another strategy, referred to as Offshore Control, involves blocking sea lanes used by Chinese merchant ships, undermining the country’s ability to continue fighting.

     U.S. officials, however, have yet to agree on any one strategy for countering China. The ever-shifting tides of domestic politics make it difficult to do so. For now, the U.S. military is likely to focus on encircling China by exporting weapons to its neighbors, maintaining its presence in contentious areas like the South China Sea, and making it clear that American power is as strong as ever.



The diagram in the article is not up-to-date as Su-35s will be exported to China, soon Indonesia will sign the contract and latest is Vietnam interest in the jet fighter.  Doubt Malaysia will buy the F-16V they had very bad experience with the F-18 in regards to source code I heard.  The F-16V isn’t cheap as the F-16C/D Block 50/52 is already over $80 million that puts in very near the Su-35 which is superior to the F-16V.

The US foreign policy has a bad habit of arms embargoes and bullying tactics which has resulted in many countries in ASEAN turning to Russia since the cold war ended as now buyers can source from Russia, China or Europe.  

F-35s are just stop gap for Japan and S.Korea until they roll out their own stealth fighters doubt there would be any new orders.  Japan may upgrade the F-15J and F-2 (F-16).

The US face some stiff competition especially Saab Gripen and now that the MiG-35 is already being rolled out as it is another option for countries in Asia.

The US might get the F-18 deal with India but that is still doubtful due to mistrust from the India’s point of view.  However, it maybe beneficial to India as the Tejas is using the F-18 engine. – Nonothai.

See detail of F-16V: HERE

See detail of F-18E/F: HERE

See details of Su-35: HEREs4_vcut

See details of F-35: HERE

See details of F-22: HERE

See details of MiG-35: HERE

See details of Gripen C/D: HERE

See details of F-15E: HEREF-15E-Mach-Loop

See details of Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin: HEREjapanese f3 (1)


See related post:

Royal Thai Air Force, Slovakia, Croatia and Bulgaria are to acquire Gripen

Indonesian defense minister confirms plans to purchase Su-35 fighters from Russia

Algeria request to test the Su-35

Slow Sales Could Kill America’s Deadly F-16 and F/A-18 Jets

Pakistan in two minds on buying F-16 jets from US

Moscow, Caracas Complete Negotiations on 12 Su-30 Fighter Jets Deal

Russia Eyes New Weapons Sales Of $6B As Part Of Syria ‘Marketing Effect’

India keen to buy F/A 18 Super Hornet fighter jets for IAF

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