Recently, there has been renewed interest on the part of Japan in acquiring the Lockheed F-22A Raptor air dominance fighter. It's no secret that the F-22A is the ultimate iteration of a fighter aircraft currently flying. The only other nation to be making substantial progress (in the view of the public, at least) on a similar aircraft is Russia with the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA. Whether or not the T-50 ends up on the same level as the Raptor remains to be seen, however, and at any rate it is still at least a decade from squadron service. The only other foreign aircraft to come close to the level of the Raptor in terms of avionics and LO design is the penultimate European fighter design, the French Dassault Rafale. Rafale, however, isn't a true LO aircraft and as such would be at a disadvantage when facing a true LO opponent, be it a Raptor or a T-50. China has also been rumored to be working on the Chengdu J-XX (sometimes referred to as the J-14), but this is speculation for the most part as the only designs to appear in the open press are fanboy speculations representing everything from near-copies of the F-22A to amalgamations of the YF-23A and Mikoyan's Cold War ATF design, the 1.42.
Why should any nation seek out an aircraft with the capability of the Raptor? Raptor's advantage is a virtual guarantee of first-shot, first-kill thanks to an LPI AESA radar and a full-up LO design. This gives a massive and distinct advantage over a conventional aircraft in combat. With the continued proliferation of the latest iterations of the Russian Su-27 and Su-30 family, perhaps the penultimate example of a non-LO air superiority aircraft, the desire to attain an edge is easily justifiable by any nation which might be facing swarms of FLANKERs along its borders.
There are at least three nations interested in the F-22A. They are Japan, Australia, and Israel. Israel and Japan already operate the Raptor's American predecessor, McDonnell Douglas's F-15 Eagle. Official US policy is that the Raptor will not be available for export in the near future, but there are rumors coming out of Lockheed that this could change in 2008. This would be of great benefit to the US aerospace industry, as an increased Raptor production line brings in more revenue to the industry members involved in producing components for the highly advanced fighter. Increasing the number of Raptors being produced would also serve to reduce the unit costs, opening up the possibility of an increased buy of Raptors for the USAF. This may in fact turn out to be a driving force behind releasing the Raptor for export, provided enough orders can be secured to make a difference.
It should be pointed out that the Raptor is not cheap. The three interested parties would have to justify the purchase of such an expensive aircraft. Let's examine each nation's case for a Raptor buy.
1. Japan: Japan would seem to be the ideal match for an exported Raptor fleet. Their F-15Js will need replacing in the near future, and they will potentially be facing a Chinese military threat consisting of large numbers of various FLANKER variants, including the indigenously upgraded J-11B, and potentially a Raptor-class aircraft in the form of the J-XX/J-14. Obtaining the Raptor would allow the JASDAF to keep a qualitative edge over the PLAAF. A Japanese Raptor buy could easily reach 100, if the funding was authorized. Japan's self-defense posture and firm relationship with the United States would also mitigate the chances of vital technology falling into the hands of her neighbors, Russia and China.
2. Australia: Australia requires both an F-18A and an F-111C replacement. While the flawed Super Hornet has been mooted as a short-term solution to the F-18A replacement issue, that still leaves the matter of the F-111C. The F-111C is a long-range strike aircraft, not an air defense platform, and as such the F-35A would be a far more logical choice for the Royal Australian Air Force insofar as an Aardvark replacement is concerned. The F-35 will not be the cheapest aircraft either, and as such the RAAF would find an additional Raptor buy a hard sell in Parliament. There is the possibility of obtaining only the F-22A, but that would result in a significant decrease in combat capability, as the Raptor's air to surface weapons are limited to GPS aided munitions like the 1000 pound JDAM or the SDB. Australian aviation fan Carlo Kopp has claimed that there is a significant threat to Australia from China that must be addressed, and Kopp has often claimed that the Raptor would be an ideal fit for Australia to replace both the Hornet and the Aardvark. The truth of the matter is that there is no reason to believe that Chinese ALCM carriers or fighter swarms will be descending upon Australia anytime soon. Kopp has also trumped-up the Raptor's air-to-surface prowess, claiming that it has to be a good bomber since the USAF is replacing the F-117 with it. Unfortunately for him, the USAF is simply replacing one LO PGM carrier with another, and Kopp is ignoring the fact that the RAAF would lose Harpoon, AGM-142, and HARM capability by replacing their fighter fleet solely with Raptors. A Raptor might be able to take out surface targets, but not naval targets with any certainty (unless the phantom Chinese supercarrier fleet appears off the coast of Sydney). He mentions the capability gap in replacing the F-111C with the Super Hornet, so he does understand the concepts involved, but is unable to effectively utilize them in a coherent manner to make his argument for an RAAF Raptor buy. His ramblings aside, the "right" answer for Australia is the F-35, and that is only if they feel the need for an LO aircraft is justifiable.
3. Israel: Israel also covets the Raptor as a replacement for their F-15C fleet. They are already showing interest in the F-35 as well, to supplement and replace their F-16 fleet, so the Raptor would only be needed to serve in an air superiority role. Israel is already ahead of aviation fanboys like Carlo Kopp in that regard, insofar as sensible purchasing practices are cocnerned. The problem is that Israel does not need the Raptor. The main threat to Israel comes from various Arab air arms, none of whom will be featuring anything as advanced as even the F-35 in the future (Turkey will probably buy them, and Egypt may be cleared at some point down the road, but neither of them represent serious aggressors at the present). Syria's most advanced aircraft is the MiG-29. Iraq is no longer a threat in the air. Iran is busying itself making changes to the F-5 and passing them off as advanced fighters. The rest of the Arab states are not serious threats to Israel except on the political stage with regards to the Palestinian issue. So, Israel does not seem to need the F-22A. However, it can be argued that they don't need a good deal of what they end up procuring anyway, so they may still attempt to purchase the Raptor, if for no other reason then to show the Arabs that they have the best toys on the block. That being said, the United States would be seriously lax in its judgement if either the F-35 or the F-22 were sold to Israel. Israel remains a US ally only because of the strength of their lobbysits and a general feeling of guilt in the Western world, one which I must say is completely asinine and unfounded (how many British or American concentration camps were in operation during WWII? Zero? Thought so.) Israel has a substantial military relationship with China and as such has transferred a good deal of technology to the Communist state. The Chinese PL-8 is a license-built copy of the Israeli Python 3 AAM. The J-10 fighter jet shows a marked similarity to the cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter jet, an aircraft designed with American assistance and derived from the F-16. The list goes on, and there is no reason to expect that the Israelis won't do whatever they feel serves their own interests, including transferring technology from the F-22A to China...maybe in return for the new Chinese ASAT weapon, which could target Iranian satellties launched by Russia? If the USA feels that it just has to continue to deal with Israel (and for those of you keeping score in the Middle East Terrorist Bombing Olympics, retabulate your scores: the original terrorist bombers in the Middle East were Zionists in British-controlled Palestine), then it would be wise to ensure that its military edge is secured by not filtering critical technologies to China via Israel.
So who should be cleared to receive the F-22A? At one point a case could have been made for various European nations, but they went their own paths and developed the EF-2000, Gripen, and Rafale, so there is no real justification that can be made by any of their governments in support of a Raptor buy. The only logical fit for an export fleet of Raptors is Japan. Japan has the need, they have the money, and they have the political reliability. The United States would be wise to clear the Raptor for export to Japan. Bolstering the defensive capabilities of a key ally in the Pacific and potentially securing a larger Raptor fleet for home use are two significant advantages to exporting the Raptor to Japan. One can only hope that Lockheed's premonitions are accurate and that 2008 brings the first news of a Raptor sale to Japan.