Japan will buy F-35 fighters, boosting the troubled program

Japan's defense ministry has selected Lockheed Martin's F-35 as its next-generation fighter jet, which recently has drawn fire from a key U.S. senator, the company said late Monday.

The Asia-Pacific nation will purchase 60 F-35s, ending its hotly contested F-X fighter competition and handing Lockheed up to $8 billion.

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The F-35 beat an American rival, Boeing's F/A-18, for the Japanese tender. It also defeated the European-made Typhoon fighter.

“We are honored by the confidence the Japanese government has placed in the F-35 and our industry team to deliver this fifth-generation fighter to the Japan Air Self Defense Force,” Bob Stevens, Lockheed Martin's chairman and CEO, said in a statement late Monday. “This announcement begins a new chapter in our long-standing partnership with Japanese industry and builds on the strong security cooperation between the U.S. and Japan.”

The announcement provides a boost for the largest weapons program in Pentagon history, which has had a rough few weeks.

The program has been hampered recently by cost spikes, developmental problems and political bombs — Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) earlier this month calling it “tragedy” and urging that prime contractor Lockheed Martin be held more accountable for problems and cost spikes.

Japan's decision will be welcomed in the Pentagon because it will give Washington a couple squadrons more of the stealthy attack jet in the Asia-Pacific region, the area of the world to which the Obama administration is focusing U.S. foreign policy. The region is dominated by China, Washington's top economic and military rival.

Japan's intention to buy the American-made jets would be the latest instance of an Asia-Pacific nation buying American weapons.

In mid-November, the White House announced several trade deals while President Obama was traveling in the region.

One of the deals would provide a boost for Connecticut-based Sikorsky, with Brunei signing on to buy 12 Blackhawk S-70i helicopters. The deal will support up to 1,100 American jobs, according to the White House. There also is an option involved that could "double the project's size, value and job creation," the White House said at that time.

The announcement of the Blackhawk sale came one day after Obama announced that up to 2,500 U.S. Marines will be stationed in Australia. The agreement with Australia also will lead to more U.S. Navy ships visiting the island nation, and more U.S. Air Force war planes rotating there.

Those November moves were viewed by analysts as a direct counter to China's growing military might.